Van Cliburn, the famed American pianist, died yesterday at age 78. Cliburn achieved his prominence and career by winning the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958. He was 23 at the time and sparked a lasting devotion from Russian fans and jump-started an interest in classical music in this country. His recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical record to sell over a million copies, and in those days there were no downloads or sharing. An LP lasted and usually cost around $12.00.
A number of factors influenced my lifelong love of classical music. Among them were both my grandmothers, who took me to concerts and the touring Metropolitan Opera company, and Van Cliburn, who was one of the few classical artists featured on the cover of Time Magazine. His recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was one of the first classical lps I bought.
Of course, we're not counting all of Elvis's records, etc. from my youth.
During his career, he recorded more best-selling albums and was at times the most popular of all touring classical artists. The prestigious Van Cliburn Competition was instituted in 1962 by the National Guild of Piano Teachers and has become one of the top piano competitions in the world.
Quite a legacy for a soft-spoken young man who became a U.S. envoy for music, especially in Russia, where he returned and was received rapturously many years later. May his legacy live on in our love of great music.