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How Van Cliburn Took Moscow

Van Cliburn's recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical album to go platinum. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Fifty years ago, a tall, curly-haired Texan pianist named Van Cliburn was given the full hero's treatment upon his arrival in New York: a ticker-tape parade, complete with a declaration by the mayor. How was it that a classical musician could inspire this kind of idolatry?

It all started with Tchaikovsky — specifically the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, held in Moscow in 1958. It was part of a movement toward a thaw in the Cold War, after a period of complete dissociation between two superpowers: the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Part of that thaw was a cultural exchange. The idea was to invite international musicians to compete with Russians for a grand prize, and to show off Soviet accomplishments in the arts.

Listen to a newsreel featuring part of Van Cliburn's actual prize-winning performance in Moscow.

A group of 50 pianists from 19 countries went to Moscow, including a few Americans. One was Van Cliburn. He had won an American competition, the Leventritt Award, at age 20, only to drift into an unremarkable career.

But his prodigious talent had not gone unrecognized by the jury — this being no ordinary jury. Among them: Russian pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter, composers Dmitri Kabalevsky, Sir Arthur Bliss, and Dmitri Shostakovich, chairman of the competition.

Cliburn famously tore into Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto, awing the Soviet judges. But they remained unsure whether they could give the prize to an American. As the popularly recounted story goes, the judges sought Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's approval. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. The judges replied yes. "Then give him the prize," Khrushchev said.

Sara Fishko examines how 50 years ago, a classical pianist made history.

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