Van Cliburn: Musical legend, faithful Baptist, gay man

Bill Zeeble had a fine remembrance yesterday on NPR of classical pianist Van Cliburn, who died Wednesday, “Remembering Van Cliburn, a Giant Among Pianists and a Cold War Idol“:

Legendary pianist Van Cliburn, the only solo musician of any genre to receive a ticker-tape parade in New York City and the first classical musician to sell a million albums, died Wednesday morning in his Fort Worth, Texas, home. The 78-year-old Texan soared to world fame in 1958 when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War.

Tall, slim Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr. was 23 years old, just a few years out of New York’s famed Juilliard School when the first Tchaikovsky piano competition beckoned from Moscow. Here was a chance to further his career and visit a far-off place the Texan had dreamed of since he was 5.

“I saw this photograph of the Church of St. Basil. It was just breathtaking. I said, ‘Mommy, Daddy, take me there,’ ” Van Cliburn recalled in an interview recorded in his Fort Worth home in 2008. “And of course I had heard famous stories about the Moscow Conservatory, that just legendary place, and the St. Petersburg Conservatory. And to play on that stage where so many great, famous people had performed was just breathtaking.”

In April 1958, Cliburn became one of those famed musicians. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was a stunner.

Stuart Isacoff is a music journalist, pianist and composer. He says the tension of the times helped seal Cliburn’s status as an icon. “He played like an immortal, he played like a legend,” Isacoff says. “He seemed to show them [the Russians] more of who they were than their own players were demonstrating.”

Zeeble’s NPR piece notes how Cliburn’s success in Russia made him a Cold War icon — the “American Sputnik” — and led him to unprecedented fame and popularity for a classical musician. But Zeeble’s real focus is on what Cliburn did with that fame — his accomplishments, influence, inspiration and legacy as a musician. And because it’s a radio report, you can hear some of that for yourself — so go read, and listen to, the whole thing (and give a listen to the video above).

The focus on Cliburn’s music is wholly appropriate, but it still would have been nice to learn more about his life away from the piano. Who was he when he wasn’t playing so beautifully?

Well, for one thing, he was also a faithful, church-going Baptist. Christianity Today made sure to get that fact right there in the headline of its post: “Van Cliburn, Renowned Baptist Pianist Credited with Easing Cold War Tensions.” Below that is a sub-head shoring up the tribal claim:

Long-time friend: “He prayed before every concert, and there was never a meal in Van’s house that was not blessed.”

Cliburn’s faith is also highlighted in a story from Jeff Brumley of Associated Baptist Press, which remembers Cliburn as a generous donor, a prayerful Christian, and a good friend who will be sorely missed by many of those in his church:

News reports of Van Cliburn’s Feb. 27 death in Fort Worth, Texas, extolled the internationally acclaimed pianist as one of history’s greatest classical musicians. Friends at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort, Worth, Texas, however, remember him as a great Baptist whose Christian faith came before his career.

Many of those friends, including Cliburn’s pastor, expressed their admiration for Cliburn’s prayerful faith and the sacred music he helped to provide for his church home.

The final paragraph of the piece also mentions another aspect of Cliburn’s life:

Cliburn was also Broadway’s most famous gay member, though little was said about his private life except for a palimony lawsuit brought against him in 1996 that was eventually dismissed. In 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention revoked the church’s membership after an unprecedented investigation by SBC leaders into whether media reports about the congregation’s inclusiveness placed it in violation of a policy banning churches that “act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.”

Yeah, gotta love the SBC. If there’s the slightest opportunity for self-righteous jack-assery, they’re not gonna miss it.

Alan Bean of the excellent blog (and advocacy group) Friends of Justice is also a member of Broadway Baptist Church. Bean writes:

I have been a member of Broadway for almost two years, but I never had the pleasure of meeting it’s most famous member. As pastor Brent Beasley notes in the ABP article, Cliburn would slip into a back pew at the beginning of the service, then slip out. By all accounts he was a loving, shy, discrete, and deeply spiritual man.

I think it was gracious of him to sit in the back — probably made the church organist a little less nervous than if he’d been sitting up front. You don’t want to sit down to play the first hymn and realize that the distinguished looking gentleman a few feet away is both: 1) the donor of the world-class organ you’re about play, and 2) a better pianist than you could ever hope to be. It was kind of Cliburn not to put that sort of pressure on a fellow musician.

Here’s the conclusion of Bean’s lovely remembrance of his fellow Baptist:

At Sunday’s funeral at Broadway Baptist, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and President George W. Bush will be among those eulogizing America’s most famous pianist. This surprised me when Brent Beasley made the announcement at our Wednesday night vesper service. Although he was the farthest thing from a gay rights activist, Cliburn was a gay man who is survived by his long-term companion. He was also a devoted Republican, and that for much the same reason he was a Baptist – in Texas, for white folks at least, both identities kind of come with the territory.

But Van Cliburn quietly brought out the best in his Republican friends, just as he brought out the best in Broadway Baptist Church and just as, long ago and far away, he warmed the hearts of two cold-warring nations … without even knowing he was doing it.


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  • Richard Hershberger

    On sitting in the back, a former governor of Maryland used to pop up at my church.  I never knew.  I later learned that when he was mayor during the Baltimore riots back in the day, he would escape from city hall (just next door to us) to the church for some quiet time, and he didn’t forget.  But he also didn’t want a fuss, and wasn’t there to glad hand or be glad handed.  I totally respect that.  

  • Ralovett

    Wow, my ex-wife camped out behind the door of one his concerts and snagged an autographed program, years ago. 

  • The_L1985

    Oh wow.  I took piano lessons for a dozen years, and I can just barely follow what his hands are doing in that video.

    Why do I always find out about these interesting people when they die?

  • Tricksterson

    Probably also made it convenient for him to slip out if called away without disrupting the proceedings.

  • I kept confusing him with Vladimir Horowitz, who married the daughter of Arturo Toscanini, until I finally looked it up.
    Some would disagree, but I think it’s just as well he kept the homosexual part low key; it’s his music that matters.

  • AnonymousSam

    I just keep circuling back around to “in Texas, for white folks at least, both identities kind of come with the territory.”

    I hope not. I sure as hell hope being a Republican isn’t like inheritating a particular gene, or that Texas has just the right combination of climate temperature and humidity to trigger hormonal changes in a newborn to cause them to develop into the kind of asshole who would, say, draft a bill to reduce the penalties for domestic assault in the name of “shrinking government” (which just happened in New Hampshire).

  •  The part that really gets me is the “for white folks at least” – it’s telling.

  • PatBannon

    They just love getting offended and furious at the slightest provocation. Can’t even remember a man’s life without taking a swig from the ol’ Hatorade.

    Geez. Reminds me of this comic, where outrage is actually an exercise routine.

  • Sgaile-Beairt

     right because having a loving lifelong relationship doesnt matter, he was just a music making robot for str8 enjoyment….

  • Hth

    I think Molly Ivins would have had something to say about the idea that being white and from Texas makes you a Republican, with or without your consent.

  • And Ann Richards, and Barbara Jordan . . . 

  • spinetingler

    Not that he still wouldn’t likely be intimidating, but it’s a very different skill set playing an organ vs. a piano.

    OTOH, he may have been an excellent organist, as well.

  • It does seem like many (most?) keyboard players of any kind take up at least some kind of playing on other keyboard instruments, enough to be dangerous.

    Though it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he was pretty stuck on piano, either, if not to exclusion, at least to absolute dominance.

  • Tricksterson

    I notice that those are all women you’re mentioning.  Not sure if there’s a conclusion to be drawn from that, just pointing it out.

    Then again there’s the man who I would have voted for Governor if I lived in Texas, Kinky Freedman.

  • Lori

    Some would disagree, but I think
    it’s just as well he kept the homosexual part low key; it’s his music that

    The fact that it’s the music that matters is exactly why he shouldn’t have had to keep “the homosexual part”, i.e. the reality of his life, low key. Funny how no one ever says that straight people shouldn’t talk about their SOs because it’s their work that matters.

  • Sounds like the hate is coming from the left.

  • P J Evans

     He was quoting a remembrance of Cliburn. You might want to read the post before you start making unwarranted assumptions.

  • Lori

    You might want to get your hearing checked.

  • stardreamer42

    Kinky Freedman: not as progressive as he wants you to think he is.

  • P J Evans

     It’s high probability if you’re not from a big city. Or from out of state. Even most of the Democrats in Texas are pretty conservative, by Blue State standards.

  • Daughter

     And one is African-American.