Classical pianist Van Cliburn has passed away on Wednesday morning at his home in Fort Worth, Texas at the age of 78. Cliburn, whose talent triumphed over the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer six months ago. He is survived by his longtime friend Thomas L. Smith, with whom he shared his home.
In the midst of the Cold War, a Julliard-trained 23-year-old Cliburn took first place at the inaugural 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. The victory was widely regarded as not just an American victory, but on a grander scheme a victory over the Soviet Union. The pianist was lauded upon his return to the U.S. with a New York City ticket tape parade, a Time magazine cover saluting him as "The Texan Who Conquered Russia", and pop star-level fame.
Signing to RCA Victor, Cliburn's recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concert No. 1 was the very first classical album to go platinum, eventually went triple-platinum, and earned the pianist a Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance in 1958. In 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was launched and continues to be held every four years, hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation, for which Cliburn served as Director Emeritus until his death.
Cliburn returned to Russia a number of times since, another notable moment as the first foreigner to perform at the Palace of Congresses in Moscow in 1962.
Cliburn's publicist Mary Louise said in a statement, "Van Cliburn was an international legend for over five decades, a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy. He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met."