WASHINGTON—US pianist Van Cliburn, who won a world competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War and whose music transcended the decades-long standoff, died at age 78 on Wednesday, his foundation said.
Cliburn achieved worldwide fame by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, becoming an acclaimed cultural ambassador at a time of intense ideological competition and nuclear threats.
The 23-year-old Cliburn was welcomed back with a ticker-tape parade, and was seen as an American hero who had temporarily erased the humiliation of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch six months earlier by winning a competition intended to highlight Moscow’s cultural superiority.
But rather than bask in patriotic glory, Cliburn invited Kirill Kondrashin, the Russian conductor who had performed with him in Moscow, to give concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.
Their recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, made during the visit, was the first classical album to go platinum and has since sold more than three million copies.
Cliburn followed the visit up with several tours of the Soviet Union from 1960 to 1972, performing in packed concert halls and bridging an ideological divide marked by an arms race, nuclear brinksmanship and proxy wars.
Cliburn performed for every US president since Truman, including a recital at the White House attended by Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, in the waning years of the Cold War.
Then president George W. Bush presented Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the country’s highest civilian honor—in 2003, and President Barack Obama honored him with a National Medal of Arts in 2011.
Cliburn was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on July 12, 1934, and began studying piano at age three with his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, a student of Arthur Friedman, who had studied under Franz Liszt.
Cliburn made his orchestral debut at the age of 12 with the Houston Symphony Orchestra in Texas, and in 1954 he won the prestigious Leventritt Competition, which had not awarded a prize in five years.
The classical music foundation set up in Cliburn’s name announced his death Wednesday, saying he died “peacefully” at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, surrounded by loved ones.
“His legacy is one of being a great humanitarian, a great musician, a great colleague, and a great friend to all who knew and loved him,” it said.
“Van is iconic, and we at the Van Cliburn Foundation join the world in mourning the loss of a true giant.”