FORT WORTH, Texas — Van Cliburn, the internationally celebrated pianist whose triumph at a 1958 Moscow competition helped thaw the Cold War and launched a spectacular career that made him the rare classical musician to enjoy rock-star status, died Wednesday after a fight with bone cancer. He was 78.
Cliburn died at his home in Fort Worth surrounded by loved ones, said his longtime friend Mary Lou Falcone.
The Grammy winner had made his last public appearance in September at the 50th anniversary of the prestigious piano competition in Fort Worth named in his honor. To a roaring standing ovation, he saluted many past contestants, the orchestra and the city, saying, “Never forget, I love you all from the bottom of my heart, forever.”
“His legacy is one of being a great humanitarian, a great musician, a great colleague, and a great friend to all who knew and loved him. Van is iconic,” said Carla Kemp Thompson, chairwoman of the Van Cliburn Foundation, which hosts the competition. “(We) join the international community in mourning the loss of a true giant.”
Cliburn skyrocketed to fame when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at age 23 in 1958, six months after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik embarrassed the U.S. and propelled the world into the space age.
He triumphantly returned to a New York City ticker-tape parade, the first ever for a classical musician,— and a Time magazine cover proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”