Van Cliburn

Pianist Van Cliburn performs in Moscow at a concert dedicated to the memory of the victims of a terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia. (Sergey Ponomarev / Associated Press / September 21, 2004)

After a tense decade of air raid sirens, duck-and-cover drills and fears of Soviet superiority, hope for America came in an unlikely form in the late 1950s: a lanky, 23-year-old Texan with a head full of curls and huge hands that ranged across a piano keyboard with virtuosic power.

With his transcendent performances of Tchaikovsky's First and Rachmaninoff's Third piano concertos, Van Cliburn brought 1,500 Russians to their feet in a Moscow concert hall.

Declared the victor of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, the young American became a hero of the Cold War era and an object of adoration around the world, whose fame helped bring classical music to the masses.

After the humiliation of Sputnik, Americans declared a cultural victory with Cliburn. Dubbed the "American Sputnik," he was feted like no other classical musician before him, with a ticker-tape parade in New York City and fan clubs to rival a movie idol's.

Cliburn, whose breakthrough success in 1958 made him one of the world's most celebrated pianists, died Wednesday of bone cancer at his Forth Worth home, said his publicist, Mary Lou Falcone. He was 78.

He kept up a frenetic schedule of more than 100 concerts a year for two decades, until retiring from the performance circuit in 1978. In the mid-1990s he embarked on a long-anticipated comeback tour that drew poor reviews.

A child prodigy, Cliburn was taught by his pianist mother until he entered Juilliard School of Music in New York in 1951 at age 17. Three years later he won the prestigious Leventritt international competition, which earned him solo engagements with the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras.

But he remained little known outside music circles before arriving in Moscow in 1958.

Competing against 49 other pianists from 19 countries at the first Tchaikovsky International Piano and Violin Festival, the technically brilliant Cliburn created a sensation with the romantic sweep of his playing in the first two rounds of the competition.

By the time he came on stage to play in the final round, "the crowd had become nearly hysterical," Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich wrote in "Van Cliburn," his 1993 biography. "Roughly 1,500 people had jammed the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory; thousands more waited outside."

Instantaneous ovations greeted Cliburn's playing of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, Reich wrote, and his performance of a new solo piece required of all finalists, a rondo by Soviet composer and contest judge Dmitry Kabalevsky, earned him a standing ovation.

But when Cliburn finished Rachmaninoff's technically difficult Third Piano Concerto, the audience erupted into a thunderous standing ovation that continued after he left the stage. Then the jury stood and joined in. Two judges even jumped up and hugged each other.

"A boyish, curly-haired young man from Kilgore, Texas, took musical Moscow by storm tonight," a New York Times correspondent reported. "Mr. Cliburn is clearly the popular favorite and all Moscow is wondering whether an American will walk off with top honors."

The jury, particularly the Soviet and Soviet bloc judges who would cast the deciding votes, feared the consequences of awarding the prize to an American.

According to Reich's book, the Soviet minister of culture took that question all the way to the top — to the chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev.

"What do the professionals say about him? Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked.

"Yes, he is the best," the minister of culture replied.

"In this case, give him the first prize," Khrushchev said.

Trumpeted on the cover of Time magazine as "The Texan Who Conquered Russia," the rangy, 6-foot-4 Cliburn was besieged by screaming admirers in cities where he appeared. And after he played before audiences of more than 80,000 on two nights in Chicago, the city's Elvis Presley Fan Club changed its name to the Van Cliburn Fan Club.

"He was bigger than a rock star," Reich told The Times last summer. "Very few rock stars get an invitation to the White House and the Kremlin. This was so beyond anything in American entertainment and culture."