From the Annals of Classical Piano – In 1958, Van Cliburn won the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Contest in Moscow – a competition designed to promote Russian cultural superiority. The victory propelled him to fame as the “Texan Who Conquered Russia” according to a Time magazine cover. Cliburn was born in Shreveport, Louisiana but moved with his family to Kilgore in first grade. His mother, a piano teacher, discovered his talent at a young age and Cliburn made his debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra at age 12. At 17, he began his studies at Julliard School in New York and was a rising star, but it was his win in Moscow at age 23 that made him an international phenomenon.
Max Frankel, the New York Times’ Moscow correspondent, heard that Russian audiences at the competition that were wildly enthusiastic about the pianist known as “Cleeburn.” As Frankel related in a 2008 interview, the young and handsome Cliburn was popular in Moscow “especially the young girls were going absolutely crazy about Van’s performances, heaping flowers on him, And there were long lines to get in, even longer than usual.” Frankel consulted, Mark Schubart, dean of the Juilliard School wondering if Cliburn was really “phenomenal, or is this just another case of Frank Sinatra bobby-soxers?” Schubart confirmed that Van Cliburn was “a hell of a musician” and “well in line to win this thing if the Russians ever let him.”
And win is what he did, wowing audiences and the jurors by playing works by the Russians’ best-loved composers, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky. The award had to be blessed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who could not deny Cliburn’s victory and even eventually befriended the talented Texan.