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.
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.