A Piano Star is BornLearn More
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.
Van Cliburn is born and soon to discover his gift in piano
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.
Van's teenage years as a growing pianist
Texas-born and New York-bound
Van meets near impossible standards as a pianist
Van Cliburn goes to Moscow a Texas pianist and comes back to the United States a national hero.
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!"
Van Cliburn returns to the United States a national hero
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.
A near tragic occurrence
Preserving a legacy through the international love of piano
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 with the First Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winner, Ralph Votapek (USA)
One of Van's happiest moments
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 Cliburn returns from a 10-year break to perform at a nuclear summit for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev
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.
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 pulls out all the stops to give his mother a 94th birthday she would not forget
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.
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..."
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.
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"
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."
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."