By Alan Bean
Acclaimed pianist Van Cliburn died yesterday after a long struggle with cancer. The Associated Baptist Press has a wonderful piece about Cliburn’s Christian faith that features comments from key members of Broadway Baptist Church, the congregation Cliburn called home. I have been a member of Broadway for almost two years, but I never had the pleasure of meeting it’s most famous member. As pastor Brent Beasley notes in the ABP article, Cliburn would slip into a back pew at the beginning of the service, then slip out. By all accounts he was a loving, shy, discreet, and deeply spiritual man.
But although I never met the man, he played a large role in my life. In 1959, my parents came home with a copy of Cliburn’s album “My Favorite Chopin”. I grew up listening to Cliburn–one of the few classical musicians I knew anything about. My mother told me he had won a big piano competition in Moscow, but that’s all I knew. To me, he was just they young man on the album cover.
Take another look at the picture at the top of this post. Note, in particular, the adoring expressions on the faces of the young women in the bottom left hand corner. They look like the girls who screamed for Elvis when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show during that epoch, except they were appreciating the music as much as the man.
In the New York Times story, a mature Cliburn admits that he had no idea how politically significant his triumph in Moscow was at the time–he was only 24, after all. It has often been noted that his triumph at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition came in the wake of the Sputnik launch that left Americans feeling far behind in the space race. By winning the Moscow competition, the reasoning goes, Cliburn restored American pride in the most frigid days of the Cold War.
That may all be true, but that’s not how Cliburn saw it, and it certainly wasn’t the perspective of his adoring fans in Moscow. In 1958, the Soviet Union was just five years removed from the sadistic brutality of Joseph Stalin and the nation was desperate for normalcy. Van Cliburn’s music allowed Russian audiences to reconcile with the feared and hated Americans without losing face. If Nikita Khrushchev hadn’t given the thumbs up, the award would have gone to a Russian pianist. But the Soviet premier had fallen in love with the gracious Texan with the enormous hands and the huge smile. He spoke and played from his heart. Cliburn had to be a great pianist to make this work, but that wasn’t enough. He had to be an American pianist, but that wasn’t enough. In the end, Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition by winning the hearts of the audience–just look at the faces in the picture, they are enraptured.
At Sunday’s funeral at Broadway Baptist, Texas Governor Rick Perry and president George W. Bush will be among those eulogizing America’s most famous pianist. This surprised me when Brent Beasley made the announcement at our Wednesday night vespers service. Although he was the farthest thing from a gay rights activist, Cliburn was a gay man who is survived by his long-term companion. He was also a devoted Republican, and that for much the same reason he was a Baptist–in Texas, for white folks at least, both identities kind of come with the territory.
But Van Cliburn quietly brought out the best in his Republican friends, just as he brought out the best in Broadway Baptist Church and just as, long ago and far away, he brought he warmed the hearts of two cold-warring nations . . . without even knowing he was doing it.