Van Cliburn’s piano provided a glorious coda to a dying father’s life in the 1950s

February 28, 2013

It was midnight in our New York apartment. My father was in the next room, dying of cancer, when suddenly I heard the magical sounds of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto coming from the living room. That’s where I found the great Van Cliburn, playing our rental piano in the dark, wearing a plaid shirt and jeans. This wasn’t his first visit. He had come by the night before in white tie and tails, just so he could serenade my father.

My parents, who were serious music lovers, had met him at our family doctor’s office soon after he’d won the Tchaikovsky medal in the spring of 1958. They knew each other socially, which is why, the following winter, when it became clear to him that my father was dying, Cliburn asked whether they owned a piano. When they said no, he told them if they rented one, he would come and play. He was going to be on the road a few weeks but planned to be home around Valentine’s Day. Beside themselves with expectations, they gave him the address and a key to the apartment and made a date.

I have no idea how they got that enormous Steinway into our tiny 10th-floor pied-a-terre, but Cliburn, fresh from a more formal concert, arrived at the appointed hour and began to play. The audience included my father, in his bed, my mother, me and a handful of awestruck classmates on the living room floor and, unbeknownst to us until she burst into the room in her bathrobe, our next-door neighbor, the widow of theater impresario Lee Shubert. (A former showgirl, she had been listening to the music through her bedroom closet with a champagne glass to her ear.) I don’t know how any of us got through the next day with our feet on the ground, but somehow, we just did.

For his second visit, which was unannounced and unexpected, Cliburn let himself in after we had gone to bed. He accompanied himself, so to speak, humming the orchestral parts of that signature Rachmaninoff. He stayed until the sun came up, ending with Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which he sang as well as played. I’d like to think my father heard, but he never woke up again to say.

Half a century, nearly a lifetime later, I still think it was the most perfect of exits imaginable.


American pianist Van Cliburn plays during his performance April 14, 1958, in the final round of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Rogers is a former Washington Post staff writer.

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