Toward the end, it seemed to come down to the wire, at least to the armchair critics in the audience. But when it was over, it was the front-runner after all: Andre-Michel Schub, a 28-year-old pianist from New York City who last night took the prize in the sixth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Second place was shared by Santiago Rodriguez, of Adelphi, Md., and Panayis Lyras, of New York City.

Schub did not receive a standing ovation when he was first announced the winner of the $12,000 frist prize, which brings with it two years of concert engagements, a recording contract and a straight shot at a major career. The concerts begin next week, when he performs with Van Cliburn in Ruidoso, N.M. "I learned about what being a favoite means in this country," he said the day before he won the competition. "People don't like the Yankees, and they didn't like Chris Evert until she started losing. I entered this thing to show myself I could do it, and I've learned a lot about myself and my relation to music."

He began playing piano when he was 4 1/2 years old. But no, he said, there weren't that many sacrifices in a childhood and adolescence devoted to music , "although I don't know that I can tell you much about the television shows of the '60s. I suppose," he said, "you become something of a different person, spending that much time alone, but I feel that I'm working on something very beautiful. I love the music; it's the thing I can express myself with."

Schub says that he is not worried about what the sudden acceleration of his career and the pressures that will attend it could do to his art. "The only thing that worries me is that I need to make music. It's what you do with your life that counts, and I know that I can find my own way."

As Schub went on stage to play his victory concerto, Lyras and Rodriguez stood in the wings accepting the consolation of their admirers. The 11 voting members of the jury decided to name them both as second-place winners because their finishes were so close. "I should feel happy, I guess." Lyras said, with a heroic attempt at a smile. "I'm relieved that it's over, but yes, I'm disappointed." The scene backstage immediately after the announcement was somewhat muted, with most everyone conceding the choice a good one. As Schub accepted the congratulations of the other contestants, one observer remarked, "Well, there are no surprises her tonight."

For three nights last week the auditorium in the Tarrant County Convention Center was packed as the six finalists tried to express all that art and skill and nerves had to say about winning one of the biggest, richest piano competitions in the world.

Each night two contestants sat down to play two piano concertos apiece as their final offerings in the exhausing two-week competition that ended last night. By Friday night, it had seemed to the amateurs as if the thing were all wrapped up. Thursday night featured the cool and careful Mozart of Zhu Da Ming of the People's Republic of China, who placed sixth, and the lyric poetry of Jeffrey Kahane of Venice, Calif., who placed fourth. A case, perhaps, of East duels with West. Friday night, with Schub and Rodriguez, was supposed to be Apollo meets Dionysius, a long-awaited battle between discipline and swaiew. Saturday night, in the popular imagination, was to be an afterthought, though the competition veterans in the audience who had come up against Lkyras had not written him off and planned to listen with more than polite interest to the romantic efforts of Christoper O'Riley, of Jamaica Plains, Mass., who placed fifth.

Schub was up first Friday night, the front-runner, his music disciplined and cerebral. He began with Beethoven, ended with Tchaikovsky. The music glittered, spare and clear; and if it seemed to be a stranger to the concept of surrender, it knew something about joy. Schub finished to a standing ovation, and as he stood pale and exhausted accepting the praises of his admirers backstage, outside -- in the hallways; in the green room, where the dignitaries gathered and the evening gown competiton had escalated to dizzing heights; in the "golden circle" area where the $500 donors drank champagne -- the clamorous chorus of Monday morning music critics was in full voice.

"So brilliant! So dazzling!"

"So cold, so harsh, so strident!"

"Rodriguez will have to play the best he's ever played to beat him."

"Rodriguez will destroy him."

Santiago Rodriguez walked to the piano, his charisma turned up to its maximum voltage. The chorus agreed that his Mozart was marvelous, and then settled down gleefully to watch Rodriguez hurl himself against Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Monor, the dread "Rach 3," as the music junkies call it, intense, passionate and treacherous.

Rodriguez played bravely; dark shadows curled through his chords and if there seemed to be something missing, it was that the audience had asked that its heart be broken only to have it returned intact. Perhaps the answer was to be found in the fact that Rodriguez himself had been a trifle bent by illness that day and had been living on nerves and Maalox only to stand finally before the cold eye of the television camera backstage and say, "I can't believe I got through this competiton."

But still the cries went up:

"How lush! How lyrical!"

"How diffident! How dull!"

"He's won!"

"He's lost!"

And still the audience was hungry. No one had swept them all away, no one had made the earth move. No one, that is, until Saturday night when Panayis Lyras played Prokofiev and danced so dangerously on the sharp and shining edge dividing meaning and emotion. "Ah," said a former Cliburn competitor as a murmur went through the crowd between movements. "That would be the Schub partisans wanting to know if it's too late to change their bets with their bookies." Lyras received an ovation that seemed unending, the twitter of backstage well-wishers grew to a deafening roar and the chorus without was quiet except for the nodding of heads and the knowning smiles. The jury, as was its wont, retired in silence. High-Wire Tension

By then, of course, it had been a very long three days since the six finalists had been selected Wednesday night; long not only for the contestants themselves but for all the others caught up in and moving with the finely tuned tension of the musical high-wire act they were watching. There were the young hopefuls who hadn't made it to the finals, now turning their sharp eyes and practiced tongues to the performances of their colleagues; the fast-talking, brash impresarios, looking for starlight on stage and a good percentage deal backstage; the cool-eyed managers looking for clients; the honey-toned matrons of Fort Worth, with their diamonds and their gold bracelets and their carefully considered guest lists, their stoic husbands; the unscrutable jurors with their inscrutable smiles; the members of the press, trying to translate the strangeness of this cloistered world whose exquisitely wrought sense of itself is both intimate and exasperating.

"An exhausting life, but at the same time quite wonderful, don't you think?" said Costa Pilavachi, a Canadian concert presenter. Ego and Survival

They are an intriguing sort, these pianists: very young and very old, a strange combination of innocence and arrogance, wise in the ways of their art, naive about the world to the point of painfulness at times. "He needs to get his heart broken," says one 24-year-old pianist calmly about a colleague. Then, he says, he'll know how to play Tchaikovsky. Sometimes, sitting along with one of them, one has the feeling there are three in the room: interviewer, pianist and pianist's ego. "Sure they're egoistic," said one observer, a teacher himself. "What do you think they have to survive on?" Dreams in a Minor Key

While the main action didn't begin until 7:30 each night with the dueling monomanias on stage, followed by the clack of business and the chatter of late-night socializing continuing long afterwards, the daylight hours were not without their own drama. Friday afternoon, competition organizers held an audition so some of the contestants who had not made the finals might play for concert managers and presenters interested in lining up clients and performers for the coming season.

While the finalists were busy practicing their chosen piano concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at the convention center, those chosen to audition stayed behind in the smaller auditorium on the grounds of Texas Christian University, where the first rounds of the competition had been held. These were dreams in a minor key. The hall that had been crowded with those who had come to hear them just days before held less than two dozen observers as the former competitors sat in the front row, each waiting to play 10 minutes' worth of music on a piano that complained mightily about having to make the effort. The compeition's executive director, Anthony Philips, apologized for the state of the instrument. "It's the piano from the ready room." Phillips explained to those listening. "I'm afraid it hasn't had the attention the other pianos have had, so it's sounding a bit clattery and not at its best."

The faces of many of the contestants were still etched in disappointment, and a clattery piano seemed at that point merely a minor indignity. "They're just trying to pacify us at this point," sighed one contestant. "I don't really have much hope that anything will come of it."

Some of them did get offers of engagements, though, and a modicum of sympathy from the managers who had come to hear them. "I feel for these youngsters, exposing themselves like this," said Lee Lamont, one of the most respected managers in the business. "I'd hate to be a young artist. Their music is their life; it's all they live for. Rejecting their music is rejecting them."

What is Lamont looking for at the Cliburn competition? "There's the usual, of course -- the fingering, the skill, the maturity in their music, the flare, the larger-than-life personality on stage." When it jumps out at you on the stage, you know it." Lamont left the audition early. Yet Another Competition

After the Schub and Rodriguez performances, some of the jurors and assorted former contestants and hangers-on went by bus to Billy Bob's Texas, billed as the world's largest honky-tonk. To the astonishment of the big-hatted cowboys and the big-hearted cowgirls, they trooped in, in their tuxedos and their evening gowns, past the pool tables and the beer stands and the dance floor filled with softly swaying couples, past the pinball machines and the tattoo parlor, past the shoeshine stand and the beefy, bald-headed, mean-eyed bouncer and into the bleachers, where they were served Lone Star beer in bottles and where a live rodeo was taking place.

The bright lights shone on the silvery, elegantly coiffed head and in the amazed eyes of Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, veteran juror, friend and interpreter of Maurice Ravel, wife of a nephew of Albert Schweitzer, as she watched the cowgirls with their long hair and their tight blue jeans in the steer-riding contest. "Now, for the outsiders here, let me explain the rules of this compeition," the announcer said cheerfully. The members of the jury just laughed gently. Parties Aplenty

For weeks, there have been parties. Cocktail parties. Brunches. Parties after the performance. Parties before the performance. Lunches. Parties like the party given by Anna Jean and Richard Walsh and Sue and Haydn Cutler at the Walshes' home Saturday afternoon. Plenty to eat, plenty to drink, and piano music of course playing in the sunny living room high on a hill in a green and gracious section of the city.

Richard Walsh surveyed the scene, looking for friendly faces. He has learned a thing or two about competitions. Never for instance, he says, ask a pianist what he thinks of a performance. He might ask you what you think in return, and that's when you get in trouble. "What do I know?" said Walsh. "It's another world, I'm just a west Texas boy; ranching and oil, that's me. That's what I know. Tomorrow morning I'll be in Hell's Canyon on a raft on the Snake River. That's my idea of a good time. Not that I'm putting down the competition, please understand. I admire these people. I really do. If I had worked that hard with that much dedication, there's not telling where I would have ended up."

The parties have been unbelievable, says Norman Krieger, a highly regarded semifinalist whose last-minute illness, many believe, was the only thing that prevented him from making the finals. "We went to this one party and we were in this beautiful home, a fairly large one I thought, and everyone sat around drinking champagne until somebody said it was time to go up to the house. It turned out we were only in the poolhouse." He looks around at the picture of bountiful living that surrounds him. "It would not be hard," he says, "to create in a place like this."

Still, the once wide-eyed artists were beginning to take it all in stride by week's end. They took their drinks with graceful nonchalance from the deferential uniformed servants. They discussed the difficulties in the first movement of the Mozart and the percentage deals involved in a contract in practically the same breath. They gossiped about who got the job conducting that little orchestra in Rumania and who got the first violinist pregnant. And when it was all over, one of them would turn, as one of them did, to the others and sigh, "Oh well, let's blow this pop stand," and then they would say their charming adieus. Facing Reality

It's over now and everyone is leaving -- some to go back home, some to other competitions, some to dream other dreams, some to face harsh realities. "In their minds, of course, they all want to go to the top," says Lee Lamont, "but ultimately some of them have to accept the fact that they can do very well at a secondary field -- teaching for instance. The competition is hard but, ultimately, it's life. These kids can take it. An artist's soul is not the fragile thing everyone says it is."

Besides, for all the golden promise, for all the bright beckoning, there are those for whom the seduction by celebrity has been no favor, those for whom the fire of fame has burned too fast. "One never knows," says Van Cliburn, in the documentary film made of the 1977 competition, who was the fortunate one -- the one who was chosen or the one who was not chosen."