Van Cliburn on stage, at church and in private life

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You know how, when you are growing up, that there is always some kind of music that you want to play late at night and it drives (Will you PLEASE turn that down?!) your parents kind of crazy? Well, for my parents, the music they had to endure for most of my teen years was Artur Rubinstein playing Rachmaninoff (piano concerto No. 2, of course) and Van Cliburn’s epic performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1.

Yes, it did help matters that Cliburn was a Texan, and a Baptist, when one is growing up in the home of a Southern Baptist minister on the Texas Gulf Coast. It also matters that I had a friend who, week after week, made the long, long journey north into East Texas to study piano with Cliburn’s mother. So I knew, secondhand, a few things about the Cliburn family and the son’s struggles to break out of the glorious box created by his historic 1958 triumph in Moscow. How does a young Texas Baptist recover from a ticker-tape parade in New York City?

I say all of this for a simple reason, after reading through quite a few obituaries marking Cliburn’s death, from cancer, at the age of 78. Cliburn was a very private man, yet there was more to the religious element of his life than what is shown in this stunningly blunt, rather simplistic passage in the USA Today report.

On the personal front, Cliburn was a devout Baptist but also quietly gay; in the late ’90s, his longtime partner, Thomas Zaremba, unsuccessfully sued the pianist over compensation claims.

And that is that. Really?

What really matters, of course, is what the journalistic college of cardinals at The New York Times elected to say. First, there is this:

Even as a personality, Mr. Cliburn began to seem out of step. In the late 1950s this baby-faced, teetotaling, churchgoing, wholesome Texan had fit the times. But to young Americans of the late 1960s he seemed a strained, stiff representative of the demonized establishment.

Followed, later on, by a crisp summary of the pianist’s brief moment in the glare of legal and social scandal:

In 1978, at 44, Mr. Cliburn announced his withdrawal from concertizing. Having earned large sums of money and invested wisely, he was a wealthy man. He moved into a magnificent home in the Fort Worth area with his mother. There he hosted frequent late-night dinner parties, his teetotaling days long behind him.

As a young man, Mr. Cliburn was briefly linked romantically with a soprano classmate from Juilliard. But even then he was living a discreet homosexual life. His discreetness was relaxed considerably in 1966 when, at 32, he met Thomas E. Zaremba, who was 19.

The details of their romantic relationship exploded into public view in 1995, when Mr. Zaremba filed a palimony suit against Mr. Cliburn seeking “multiple millions,” according to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Mr. Zaremba, who had moved to Michigan and become a funeral director, claimed that during his 17-year relationship with Mr. Cliburn he had served as a consultant and business associate, arranging promotional events and trips, managing some of the pianist’s finances, and helping to care for Mr. Cliburn’s mother, who died in 1994 at 97. The suit was eventually dismissed because Mr. Zaremba could not provide written validation of his domestic arrangement with Mr. Cliburn, as required by Texas law.

There is no attribution, of course, for many of these facts or the degree to which the sexual side of this partnership was documented.

My point is not, of course, to say that the pianist’s private life is irrelevant in this context.

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