Mr. Cliburn was hardly a novice when he went to Russia in April 1958; he was 23 and had won several important American competitions. But musical accomplishment is no guarantee of fame and fortune (or, for that matter, even of a living wage), and Mr. Cliburn had already given up his New York apartment to move back in with his parents in Kilgore. The decision to go to Russia was something of a last chance, and it paid off for the rest of his life.
In Mr. Cliburn’s early years, he was a splendid artist, with a technique that knew no difficulties. His early recordings — not only heroic concertos but solo albums devoted to Brahms, Chopin and Debussy — all testify to the power and poetry of his playing.
But he relinquished his crown while he was still a young man, and his life may be seen as a long study in anticlimax.
In the mid-1990s, Mr. Cliburn was briefly in the news after his former domestic partner Thomas E. Zaremba, a mortician who was also responsible for the pianist’s makeup, sued him for palimony, alleging that he had managed Mr. Cliburn’s business affairs, paid bills and generally run the household from 1964 to 1994.
Mr. Cliburn’s attorneys countered that because Texas law recognized no spousal relationships other than heterosexual unions, Zaremba was owed no community property. In 1997, the case was thrown out.
Survivors, according to the announcement from Falcone, include a friend of long standing, Thomas L. Smith.
In the denouement of his life, Mr. Cliburn was showered with awards. He received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001, and in 2010 President Obama presented him with the National Medal of Arts at the White House.
“Since his historic 1958 victory at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Mr. Cliburn has reached across political frontiers with the universal message of beautiful music,” Obama said.
Mr. Cliburn later called the event “a lovely service.”
“They were so nice, very sweet, very kind. I was so thrilled,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He was then asked how many presidents he had played for.
“Every one, every one since Eisenhower,” Mr. Cliburn replied.
None of this could have been predicted while Mr. Cliburn was growing up in small-town Texas.
“I remember calling my mother from Russia and telling her I’d won the competition,” he told this reporter in 1989. “I had no idea that the story had become so big. So I asked her if she’d told Mrs. So-and-So across town that I’d won. And she said yes, she knew all about it. And I asked her if she’d told Mr. So-and-So in the next town over that I’d won. And she said, yes, he knew about it, too. And I felt pretty good, because it was all very well to be known in your town, but what really mattered was if your reputation had spread to the next town. Then you’d really made it.”
He smiled and shook his head.
“I was mighty proud that night,” he said, a touch of awe in his voice.