Beautiful Sounds: Van Cliburn dead at 78

Van CliburnVan Cliburn, perhaps the last of the breed of the classical musicians who were household names, is dead at 78. I started the day reading the well-done obit in the Times, and kept coming back to him as I worked through the day. An interview with Scott Simon on NPR captures his charm and a number of his touchstone quotes (musicians end up with formulas they trot out in interviews over and over again to answer questions that can’t really be answered in words). One was his love of opera, which started early, and corresponding emphasis on creating a singing tone in the piano. That is, getting the piano to sound like a voice, and going beyond its seeming limitations as a percussion instrument, a bunch of hammers and strings. (A pianist as different from Cliburn as Alfred Brendel makes the same point.)

He also gets at something in the interview that doesn’t get often mentioned: that playing for yourself, be it practicing or noodling around (which do I do more of? Hmm?) is totally different from performing, and often much more rewarding. A related point is that performing requires a divided self, and it’s being a listener that is the purer pleasure. (I think the same is true about reading, its rewards are much more lasting, and satisfying, than writing, which is, as Peter DeVries pointed out, mostly “paperwork.”)

I liked to think of him playing Chopin (another lover of opera) just for the hell of it, alone in the middle of night in his Fort Worth home, thundering through a ballade or caressing a melancholy prelude. Maybe even singing along a la Glenn Gould, an artist as different as he could be, but who is now probably playing piano duets with him.

There’s also a nice piece about him in the Fort Worth paper, and WQXR is streaming the entire program he played at the Tchaikovsky Competition from the broadcast a few months later in Carnegie Hall. (With Peter Allen announcing, before he got the job as voice of the Met.) That was in 1958. Fourteen years later or so, I heard him live (one of the few greats of that era I ever heard in person.) He was performing at Michigan State University, and had a full-house for a program of mostly Chopin. I went back to get his autograph, amazed by the feel of the event and adulation, as much as the music making, a lot of which went over my 10-year-old head.

One thing that I wish somebody would write more about, but I’m not qualified to do, is his connection to the Russian school of piano playing. This came to him through, among other influences, his Juilliard teacher, Rosina Lhevinne. His sound was certainly Russian to me, although such things are hard to really pin down. But in an interview, Vladimir Ashkenazy, listing great pianists who played Rachmaninoff with the authentic Russian sound, gave high marks to Cliburn. When the interviewer said, “but he’s from Texas,” Ashkenazy replied, “Ah, but Russian trained.”

Check out this master class of Lhevinne’s, where she’s coaching (and possibly terrifying) a young (and hunky) Misha Dichter. And singing, of course.

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