Hands That
Shaped History

From the Cold War to Carnegie Hall, Van Cliburn was a classical music icon of the 20th century. Drag to Explore our interactive timeline mapping out the landmark events of his lifetime.

1934 A piano star
is born

Van Cliburn is born and soon to discover his gift in piano

Harvey Lavan, “Van" Cliburn, Jr. was born in Shreveport, Louisiana to Rildia Bee O’Bryan and Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Sr. on July 12, 1934. When Van was six, his family moved to Kilgore, Texas following Van’s father’s job in the oil industry.

Van Cliburn with his mother and father

Piano runs...
In the Family

At age three, he began taking piano lessons from his mother. Van’s mother, Rildia Bee, was an accomplished pianist who studied under Russian concert pianist Arthur Fridheim. This is one of the earliest connections Van has to his many ties in Russia.

1947 A Budding

Van's teenage years as a growing pianist

Establishing a reputation as a piano virtuoso, Van won his first competition by the age of 12. At age 13, Van debuted as a concert pianist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra after winning a statewide piano competition. After turning 14 years old, Van performed at Carnegie Hall for the first time.

1950 Leaving for

Texas-born and New York-bound

Graduating high school at the age of 16, Van began studying piano under renowned instructor, Rosina Lhévinne at the Juilliard School in New York. Rosina Lhévinne’s impact on Van’s performance and style greatly influenced his career.

1954 Winning the

Van meets near impossible standards as a pianist

In the six-year span between 1952 and 1958, Van won all but one competition he entered including: G.B. Dealey Award from the Dallas Symphony and the Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Scholarship. Of the awards received, the most noted recognition is the prestigious Leventritt Award. The Leventritt Competition was a highly coveted international competition for pianists and violinists. Known for its high standards, the Leventritt award was not always awarded. If the judges felt the standard was not achieved, no award was presented.

1958 "Is He The"

Van Cliburn goes to Moscow a Texas pianist and comes back to the United States a national hero.

In 1958, the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition was held in Moscow. Following the launch of Sputnik, the Tchaikovsky competition was created so the Soviet Union could display their superiority in the arts as well as space exploration. Fifty pianists from 19 countries went to Moscow. One was Van Cliburn.

"Then Give Him
The Prize!"

Under the playing style of Russian Romantics, Van played Tchaikovsky No. 1 and Rachaninoff No. 3 in front of Russian judges. It was the perfect storm of Van’s playing style, personality, looks, Texan charm and near spiritual connection with Russian culture that culminated this iconic performance.

When the judges were expected to announce the winner, the judges sought permission of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. "Then give him the prize!"

1958 A

Van Cliburn returns to the United States a national hero

After winning the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, Van was instantly recognized as a hero. Van returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, an honor never before given to a classical musician. Time Magazine made Van the cover on the issue Time: The Texan Who Conquered Russia. Van Cliburn's recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 was the first classical album to go platinum.


Van made multiple television appearances including a performance on Steve Allen’s prime time TV series and the famous game show, What’s My Line? Van signed an exclusive contract with RCA, and won the 1958 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance.

1960 A

A near tragic occurrence

As Van continued booking performances across the world, in 1960 he contracted a finger infection that started in his cuticle. After a botched temporary fix to continue performing, Van’s manager noticed the swelling in his finger and wrist and rushed him to the hospital for surgery. The surgeon was able to diagnose and mend the serious infection that, left untreated, could have cost Van his hand, part of his arm, and his career.

1962 The First
Van Cliburn
Piano Competition

Preserving a legacy through the international love of piano

Initially held in Ed Landreth Auditorium at Texas Christian University in 1962, the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition featured the brightest young classical pianists from across the world. The competition was established to preserve Van’s legacy demonstrating how classical music can inspire across the globe.

First competition raffle draw for performance order

A Western Town

The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is widely considered to be the world’s foremost piano competition. It is also a reflection of the surprisingly abundant growth of the arts in Fort Worth, by tradition a “western” town.

Van Cliburn and Ralph Votapek

Van with the First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winner, Ralph Votapek (USA)

1962 An

One of Van's happiest moments

On his 1962 tour back to the Soviet Union, Cliburn’s mother, Rildia Bee, performed during his encore in Moscow. She played Moszkowski and Liszt to an uproarious crowd. Rildia Bee taught Van from a young age, as well as teaching other children in the 1930’s. She was very talented herself, having studied under Russian concert pianist Arthur Friedheim (who had studied under Franz Liszt). Some say if she had been born in a different time, she could have been as successful as Van. “That was one of the happiest nights of my life,” Van stated about that night.

First competition raffle draw for performance order

1985 Calling

Van purchased the Fort Worth Westover Road mansion for himself and his mother, which became their permanent residence. The home was previously owned by Kay Kimble. Van had been living in a hotel in New York for years with frequent visits to Texas.

Van decided to buy a permanent residence in Fort Worth for his mother so they could live together.

1987 Moscow
Nights In

Van Cliburn returns from a 10-year break to perform at a nuclear summit for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

After nearly 10 years without performing, Van Cliburn made an appearance in Washington for the 1987 nuclear summit for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Van Cliburn performed after the two political leaders made their state dinner toasts for a full audience in the East Room of the White House. "My relationship with the Russians was personal, not political," Van Cliburn explained in an interview once that, "I felt at home with these people."


After his performance at the White House, Van was invited to open the 100th anniversary season at Carnegie Hall kickstarting his return to performing.

Van's performance capped off a three-day summit on reducing nuclear arms, President Reagan hosted a lavish estate dinner to honor Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa. When Van performed "Moscow Nights" at the dinner, the Gorbachevs broke out in song.

1990 Hometown Hero

In October 1990, Van returned to his hometown of Kilgore, Texas for the 60th anniversary of Kilgore’s gold rush. While there, he gave his first solo, public performance in 10 years. He arrived 45 minutes late to a sold out show to tumultuous applause and played five encores for a loving audience.

Van continued meeting with old friends and fans for hours after the performance and ended late into the night and early morning by seeing organist James Lynn Culp perform at a local church. The following morning, Van was interviewed live on Good Morning America.

1990 Rildia Bee's

Van pulls out all the stops to give his mother a 94th birthday she would not forget

Van hosted Rildia Bee’s birthday at the Fort Worth Club with 600 guests attending. John Giordano and the Fort Worth Symphony played while Roberta Peters sang.

1994 The Passing
of Rildia Bee

In the late 80s, Van Cliburn moved home to Fort Worth, Texas, to live with his beloved mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn until she passed away in 1994. She was more than a parent and instructor to Van; he often referred to her as his best friend. Rildia Bee had an enormous influence on his relationship with music – the way he played the piano, his polite mannerisms, and his humble and serving nature.


Van's rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner is heralded as an important moment in the history of the stadium. Watch the performance here.

On Opening Day in 1994, Van opened the new Ballpark in Arlington with his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

2003 Presidential
Medal of

Van received this medal from President George W. Bush in 2003. The Nation’s highest civilian honor, awarded to those who "have made exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of America, to world peace..."

Throughout his life, Van performed for every U.S. President from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama.


Van didn't just receive praise from his home country, but continued to be awarded in his beloved Russia, given The Order of Friendship of Peoples by President Vladimir Putin in 2004.

Awards Click here to see all
of Van’s Awards &

The Friendship of Order of Peoples rewards, "Russian and foreign nationals whose work, deeds and efforts have been aimed at the betterment of relations with the Russian Federation and its people"

2011 National

On March 2, 2011, Van received the 2010 National Medal of the Arts from former President Barack Obama. It is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the United States government. The medal is awarded to those who "are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the U.S."

2013 A Lasting

On February 27, 2013, Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn Jr. passed away of bone cancer at 78 years old. He was buried in Greenwood Memorial Park and Mausoleum in Fort Worth. A dear friend of over 20 years, Thomas L. Smith, spoke of Van at his funeral, "Van's death is a crater-sized void that is felt around the world. But for me it is the loss of my soulmate, the deepest friendship. My gratitude is boundless."

Van continued playing music until his final days. "Classical music, classical art is forever."