At the height of the Cold War, even a piano could be an instrument in the great contest between East and West. That was the lesson of the victory of 23-year-old Van Cliburn in the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. A beanpole Texan with hands that spanned 12 keys, Cliburn, who died Feb. 27, instantly became a celebrity far beyond the classical-music world. A huge hit with the Russian people–his win had been secretly okayed by Nikita Khrushchev–he was welcomed home with a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan. Yet though he was a greatly gifted musician, Cliburn’s early stardom may have thwarted his musical growth. His concert and recording income skyrocketed, but many critics were lukewarm about his later attempts to move beyond his youthful repertory.
This text originally appeared in the March 11 issue of TIME magazine.
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