He was a small town East Texas boy – a one time KC student who later became a world-renowned classical pianist, one who would capture audiences and be hailed by millions.
Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn Jr., a resident of Fort Worth since 1986, died Wednesday at the age of 78.
“Kilgore College cherishes the long and warm relationship we have enjoyed with him through the years. His legacy and his music will continue to endure for many years henceforth,” said Dr. Bill Holda, KC president. “We extend our love and sympathy to the many individuals who have not only been affected by his life, but also with his death. “
Cliburn was not only a talented musician, but was also a great benefactor to KC. He was always interested in investing in the lives of young musicians and promoting music education.
“He loved to encourage young musicians. He loved to hear them. He was a wonderful, wonderful audience,” said Annette Morgan, financial aid officer and close friend of Cliburn. “He would say, ‘I am the best audience a young musician can have because I so want them to do well. I love it so much and I want them to hear what others can do and how they can play. I am the best pair of ears a young pianist can have.’ But it wasn’t just about him. He wanted to perfect his art but he wanted others to do well.”
Cliburn was born on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La., to Harvey Lavan Cliburn Sr. and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. The family moved to Kilgore when he was 6 years old. Cliburn attended summer classes at KC in 1951 and 1952.
“He grew up here. He made a lot of friends here. He went through all of the Kilgore schools: Kilgore Elementary, Kilgore Junior High and Kilgore High School,” Morgan said.
When he was 12 years old, Cliburn won his first piano competition. In 1945, he won the prestigious Edgar M. Leventritt Foundation Award granting him the opportunity to play with the New York Philharmonic and four other major American orchestras. Cliburn was the first winner since 1949. The Leventritt was held annually but no prize was awarded unless the judges considered a candidate worthy. Three years later, in 1948, he performed at New York City’s prestigious Carnegie Hall as the winner of the National Music Festival Award.
In 1966, KC’s Applied Arts Building (later named the Anne Dean Turk Fine Arts Center) opened with a state-of-the-art auditorium named for Cliburn.
“Van Cliburn is among the most distinguished alumni of Kilgore College. He was a once-in-a-lifetime musician who in many ways was bigger than life. Whether on the musical stage or the international political stage, he was a signature individual,” Holda said.
Cliburn’s musical talent was apparent at a young age, due in no small part to the fact that his mother was also an accomplished pianist and teacher. He later attended The Juilliard School in New York at the age of 17.
“He gives her credit for his ability and his sensitivity and his education in the Russian style of playing. She was his musical guide; that’s what he called her,” Morgan said. “What fascinates me about her is that she recognized at the age of 3 he had this incredible gift. In order to guide a gift like that, you yourself would have to be so incredible as a teacher. You would have to be so aware of what they need. It (his musical talent) was never exploited. They just worked and developed and did it very wisely and steadily. When he went off, he was ready. When he got with the big boys, he was ready and he quickly became known at Juilliard.”
Six years later, at the age of 23, fame beckoned. Cliburn won the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, Russia.
“There are no political barriers to music. The same blood running through Americans also runs through the Soviet people and compels us to create and enjoy the same art,” said Cliburn of his time in Moscow. “I have become more aware of this since I have been in Russia. What has thrilled me so much is the great spirit of musical unity achieved here at the Tchaikovsky Competition by the different peoples of the world whose governments are at political loggerheads.”
Upon his return to New York City, Cliburn became the first classical music artist to be honored with a ticker-tape parade.
“When he won that competition we were thrilled. We were beside ourselves,” Morgan said. “Time magazine sent people here and they all crowded into Mrs. Cliburn’s small house taking pictures of everything. All of a sudden, Kilgore became this big deal.”
After winning the competition, Cliburn was featured in front-page news nationwide, including the cover of Time magazine. His triumph helped thaw relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Dubbed by Time, “The Texan that Conquered Russia,” Cliburn’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical recording to reach platinum recording status with more than three million copies sold.
“He said that it was the other way around. Russia conquered his heart. The fact that he was an American knocked down walls and transcended boundaries. No one expected an American to win. It was assumed that a Russian would win,” Morgan said. “His personality, charisma and genuine love of the Russian people became a catalyst in addition to his playing. None of that would have mattered had he not been able to play so beautifully.”
Morgan and her family knew the Cliburn’s well. At a young age, Morgan received piano lessons from Mrs. Cliburn and continued these lessons for the next 10 years.
“I was 5 when I began taking lessons with his mother. He was 18 at the time. He would come in from New York at times and that’s how I came to get to know him,” Morgan said. “We never did lose contact which is a blessing. Van was not just my friend. He was friend of my family’s. My mother was good friends with his mother.”
Morgan says Cliburn’s parents were instrumental in shaping his musical talent and character.
“This was a quote from Van’s mother: ‘Musical inspiration is a gift from God. Use it with the purest motives. Aim high and consider yourself capable of great things. Lend your talents to the world to make it better,’” Morgan said. “I think Van embodied that. He was just a unique individual with a talent that only comes along once in a century. He tried to use that talent to make the world a better place.”