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Texan classical pianist Van Cliburn died earlier today. He was 78.

Cliburn he was better known for his historical impact than his music. In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, he won the then-new Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. Via Washington Post:

In April 1958, Mr. Cliburn went to Moscow at the height of the Cold War and brought home the gold medal in the new Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition for his rendition of the composer’s Concerto No. 1. The contest had been established to showcase the Russian superiority in culture, a mere six months after the scientific triumph of launching Sputnik, the first space satellite.

Mr. Cliburn’s performance — the crystalline touch, the welling songfulness — prompted an eight-minute standing ovation. But such were the political tensions of the time, the judges of the competition checked with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev before announcing their decision to give the prize to a non-Soviet musician.

“Is he the best?” Khrushchev is said to have replied. “Then give him the prize!”

Mr. Cliburn was mobbed in Moscow by joyful admirers. Women reportedly wept and fainted at his concerts.

According to Cliburn’s friend and publicist Mary Lou Falcone, Cliburn’s death came as a result of bone cancer.




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