Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, Harvey Lavan Cliburn began studying the piano at age 3. His family moved to Texas three years later. When he won the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, the United States and the former Soviet Union were locked in a tense “Cold War”; made even more antagonistic with the launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik space probe the year before. Cliburn’s performance earned him an 8-minute standing ovation and about $2,500. His win earned him a ticker-tape parade in New York City (the first musician to have one) and a cover on “Time” magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
Cliburn’s unimposing personality and dedication to piano-playing made him an icon of classical music. Although he officially retired from the concert circuit in 1978, Cliburn’s foundation seeks to inspire future pianists with its quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano competition and various educational programs. He received a Kennedy Center Honors in 2001 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. In 2010, President Obama presented Cliburn with the National Medal of Arts.
Reflecting back on Cliburn’s 1958 win Moscow makes me realize something critical. We artistic types – musicians, writers, dancers, poets – can always accomplish what politicians never can: unity and peace among disparate entities. In December of 1987, Cliburn performed at the White House for then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The “Cold War” was still in full swing, and although the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, tensions between them and the U.S. were still high. But, as he had done in Moscow 29 years earlier, Cliburn merely sat down at a piano and, with his nimble fingertips, made the animosity disappear.