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 Russian cultural superiority, 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.
“Van looked and played like some kind of angel,” the Russian pianist Andrei Gavrilov later recalled. “He didn’t fit the evil image of capitalists that had been painted for us by the Soviet government.”
Mr. Cliburn was equally positive about the people he met during his visit. “I was just so involved with the sweet and friendly people who were so passionate about music,” he later recalled. “They reminded me of Texans.”
Mr. Cliburn’s achievement was reported on the front pages of newspapers throughout the world. He returned home to a New York ticker-tape parade and the sort of shrieking, unfettered adulation that a few years later would be transmuted into Beatlemania. In May 1958, Time magazine put him on its cover with a banner that read “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
Fans ripped off the door of his limousine during a visit to Philadelphia. RCA Victor signed him to an exclusive contract, and his first recording — the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, of course — quickly became the best-selling classical record in history, a position it would retain for most of a decade.
By the time he was 24, he was the subject of a biography, by the critic and composer Abram Chasins, titled “The Van Cliburn Legend.” Few young classical musicians have ever faced so many expectations.
Such sudden celebrity was heady stuff for a shy, soft-spoken young man who not long before had spent most of his time playing scales in the obscurity of a practice room at New York’s Juilliard School. Not surprisingly, Mr. Cliburn seems to have found the expectations impossible to live up to.
Within five years, his playing had begun a marked deterioration.
“From the mid-1960s, it seemed he could not cope with the loss of freshness,” Michael Steinberg wrote in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. “His repertory was restricted; his playing, always guided primarily by intuition, took on affectations and the sound itself became harsher.”