Van Cliburn, the tall, gangly, curly-haired Texan who became the most famous classical pianist in American history over the course of a single extraordinary week in 1958, died Feb. 27 at his home in Fort Worth. He was 78.
His death, from bone cancer, was announced by his publicist and longtime friend, Mary Lou Falcone. In April 1958, Mr. Cliburn went to Moscow at the height of the Cold War and brought home the gold medal in the new Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition for his rendition of the composer’s Concerto No. 1.
The contest had been established to showcase the Russian superiority in culture, a mere six months after the scientific triumph of launching Sputnik, the first space satellite.
Mr. Cliburn’s performance — the crystalline touch, the welling songfulness — prompted an eight-minute standing ovation. But such were the political tensions of the time, the judges of the competition checked with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev before announcing their decision to give the prize to a non-Soviet musician.
“Is he the best?” Khrushchev is said to have replied. “Then give him the prize!”