EDITORIAL: Van Cliburn's life and influence

Mar. 01, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

The term “Cold War” generally refers to the icy relationship and very real tensions between opposing ideological world powers beginning in the late 1940s. Although many nations took sides, most of us associate the Cold War with the combat-less struggle between the two superpowers possessing nuclear weaponry during those sometimes dark days — the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Tensions between the two nations escalated in early October 1957 after the USSR’s launch of “Sputnik,” the world’s first artificial satellite. Fear and some panic followed, with the Space Race close behind.

But just six months after Sputnik, another event occurred that provided a temporary — though impactful — thaw in US-USSR relations: an American won an international piano competition in Moscow.

The American was Van Cliburn, who succumbed to bone cancer this week.

“Music,” the oft (but incorrectly) quoted saying goes, “has charms to soothe the savage beast.” What the United States and the Soviet Union shared (aside from their disdain for one another and the capability of nuclear annihilation) was a love of classical music. The first International Tchaikovsky Competition was an attempt to demonstrate the cultural superiority of Soviets, so they invited pianists from around the world. But Cliburn — a 23-year-old Texan — spoiled the party. Cliburn wasn’t a statesman or a political leader with aspirations of high office. He was a pianist, and his skills were beloved by his host nation: he received thunderous applause after his performances in the competition, including an eight-minute standing ovation after playing in the competition finale.

According to a version of the events told by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s son, judges felt compelled not to award Cliburn the top prize. Someone from the ministry of culture approached a Communist Party official with the dilemma — the audience and judges loved Cliburn, but he was an American. The official was dispatched to the premier.

"Is the American really the best?" Mr. Khrushchev queried.

He was.

The premier responded: "So you have to give him the prize.”

Perhaps, in reflecting upon Cliburn’s life and influence, it's easy to overestimate how deeply his win, his fondness for the Soviet people — and their eager reciprocation — relieved tensions between the two nations. It could have just been the shared love of and appreciation for music or an exaggeration. Regardless, demonstrating a common bond forever allowed Cliburn to link his homeland with the people of another land. It allowed changed perceptions, which is something we should all value.