Richard Taruskin, The Times Literary Supplement
Image from article, with caption: Van Cliburn and Sviatoslav Richter at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition, Moscow, 1958
Obituaries for Van Cliburn, who died at seventy-eight at the end of February 2013, were wistful. He was a man of a moment, a moment long past. Though Nigel Cliff in Moscow Nights works hard to ramp up his hero’s exploits into something world-historical, his book, too, strikes an elegiac note; it is more about the moment than the man.
In case you blinked: Van Cliburn (born Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr, in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1934) was the American pianist who, at the age of twenty-three, won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, a few months after Sputnik and a few months before the Cuban revolution. Immediately co-opted into the rhetoric and diplomacy of the Cold War, he was feted like no other classical musician in America, before or since. He shook hands with Nikita Khrushchev one week, with Dwight D. Eisenhower the next. He was given a Broadway ticker-tape parade. He had fan clubs (one defecting to him from Elvis Presley). His recordings of his war-horses, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Third, were huge sellers, and the Tchaikovsky disc is still the bestselling classical record of all time. It is impossible to think of him in any other context than the one that made him suddenly and sensationally famous. He is seen more as a counterpart to Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, than to other pianists, whether of his generation, such as John Browning or Byron Janis, or slightly older and better known, like Gary Graffman or Leon Fleisher – let alone to Emil Gilels or Sviatoslav Richter, the celebrity Soviet pianists who, as members of the jury that awarded him his prize, proclaimed him their peer.
This is a pity and an injustice – Cliburn was their peer. He could have been one of the great twentieth-century pianists rather than a fabled flash in the pan. His recordings prove that, as do, even more convincingly, a set of five Video Artists International DVDs, that preserve his Soviet performances in recital and with orchestra over a period of fourteen years. (A few can be found even more easily on YouTube.) Watching as well as hearing him, one immediately sees what his peers and preceptors saw: an absolutely colossal aptitude for piano performance, beginning with ideal pianist’s hands: huge, like those of Rachmaninoff (he and Cliburn having been of comparable height), but with even longer, slimmer fingers. And how well they were trained, at first by his mother, his only teacher before he went to Juilliard at the age of seventeen, where he became the star pupil of Rosina Lhévinne, Juilliard’s star teacher, who had graduated with a gold medal from the Moscow Conservatory in 1898 (sixty years before Cliburn’s triumph in that very building), and who rated him “the most promising student I have had”.
Even before the Tchaikovsky he was known among pianists as fortune’s child. In 1954, at the age of nineteen, he won the Edgar M. Leventritt Award, a competition, judged by no-nonsense types like George Szell and Rudolf Serkin, to which one was admitted only by invitation or recommendation, and in which there were no runners-up, and often no winner. It paid its laureates in prestige and exposure: Cliburn played a solo recital in Carnegie Hall and the Tchaikovsky concerto with the New York Philharmonic. Nigel Cliff reports good but not great reviews for these performances, but Cliburn also got to appear on The Tonight Show, then in its first year, with Steve Allen, its first host, and made an extraordinary impression, setting the pattern for his whole career. He would always be admired by professionals and loved by audiences, and he would always be a whipping boy for most critics. After his appearance on the air, his first manager was deluged with inquiries about the “guy with the hair we saw on TV”.
Did I mention the hair? It added three inches to his height and turned its lanky owner into a cartoon Texan. (Harvey L. Cliburn Sr, a low-level oil executive, had moved the family from Shreveport to Kilgore, Texas, when Junior was five years old.) That look was magic for him, precisely for the way it jarred with the sounds he made: for he was in every way save the accident of birth, long before he ever saw Moscow or even Rosina Lhévinne, a Russian pianist. His mother, née Rildia Bee O’Bryan, though she might have looked the part of an East Texas piano teacher, had been a devoted pupil of Arthur Friedheim, a Russian despite his name, who had been a devoted pupil of Anton Rubinstein in St Petersburg, and who had moved on from Rubinstein to Liszt himself. As for Lhévinne, she was a prizewinning pupil of Vasiliy Safonoff, who had been a pupil of Theodor Leschetitzky (who had studied with Carl Czerny, who had studied with Beethoven).
Cliburn lived up to his pedigree in a fashion that made him irresistible to the pianists who would judge him in 1958. You can hear what they heard in Cliburn’s altogether astonishing rendition of Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand, op. 9, no. 2, preserved from a finals round of the Tchaikovsky Competition itself, and available on YouTube. What makes this particular piece a touchstone of Russian style is the way it depends on shades of “colour” – that is, of touch: tiny, telling gradations of pressure and length of contact with the key that can make the piano such a marvellous elucidator of complex musical textures. Like practically all pieces for the left hand alone, Scriabin’s Nocturne seeks to create the illusion of two-handed playing. (There are hardly any pieces for the right hand alone because of the way the weight of human hands is distributed: the thumb – “my tenor thumb”, Brahms called it – is at the “top” of the left hand at the keyboard and can easily bring out the tunes.) It may be the most successful of all in this deception – see if your friends can tell when you play them Cliburn’s performance that he’s using only one hand – but only if the performer can realize its demands: partly a matter of canny pedalling, but, far more important, of being able constantly to change the hand position while ensuring that note follows note in each “voice” in the texture with exactly the same weight and articulation as its predecessor and successor, no matter which finger has to play it. It requires a muscular control far rarer than the more easily noticed feats of velocity or digital marksmanship that to nonprofessional audiences define bravura “technique”. Pianists known for this ability – Rachmaninoff, Medtner, Horowitz, Moisiewitsch, Sofronitsky, the Lhévinnes (Rosina and her long-deceased husband Josef), Genrikh Neygauz (aka Heinrich Neuhaus, the teacher of Gilels and Richter) – have been Russians one and all.
Cliburn, too, had it to a superlative degree, which means his mother must have worked towards instilling it from the beginning; and you can hear it as well in his two-handed playing. Few pianists were as capable of modulating the tone of the instrument, judging the shape of a phrase and realizing it vividly, as Cliburn in his early days, when the imprint of the Russian style was most marked on him. (For an exquisite demonstration of two-handed touch control, watch Cliburn play the end of Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca – a Sofronitsky speciality – on one of the VAI DVDs, with its dissonant notes struck by the left hand and resolved by the right.) Gilels, Richter and their seniors on the Moscow jury, such as the venerable Alexander Goldenweiser (a friend of Rachmaninoff and Tolstoy), were uniquely attuned to Cliburn’s special virtues. Cliff describes their ecstatic reaction to his playing at the competition, which made the young Cliburn’s victory inevitable, as well as richly deserved.
But his playing coarsened with time. You can hear it happening if you compare his many performances of Liszt’s famous transcription of Schumann’s song “Widmung” (Dedication), op. 25, no. 1. It was his favourite encore, and he recorded it during every phase of his short career. A favourite of many pianists, the piece is often held up by the fastidious as evidence of Liszt’s bad taste – so often, indeed, that the authors of the play on which Song of Love (1947), the Hollywood Schumann biopic, was based, worked in a scene in which Clara Schumann (played in the movie by Katharine Hepburn) dresses Liszt down for turning her husband’s loving wedding gift to her into a garish star turn. Modelling his transcription on his own Liebestraum (also a transcription of a song, in this case his own), Liszt piled on repetitions, each more ornately festooned with arpeggios than the last, including a gratuitous climactic statement, marked fortississimo, con somma passione, that turns intimate confession into some sort of Alpine cow call. A curious book by a Swiss disciple of the German music historian Carl Dahlhaus, called Probleme der musikalischen Wertästhetik im 19. Jahrhundert: Ein Versuch zur schlechten Musik (Problems in the Aesthetic Evaluation of Music in the Nineteenth Century: An essay on bad music), gives Liszt’s “Widmung” a whole chapter. The author, Eva Eggli, remarks that such a piece can only come off as “artistic” if the virtuoso embellishments are treated as “colours” applied nonchalantly (quasi improvisando) rather than “rendered ostentatiously as in an étude”. Sound advice; and in his early renditions Cliburn seemed to be heeding it – not surprisingly, since that emphasis on colour accords completely with his “Russian” training. A little recital he recorded in Moscow right after winning his gold medal, issued on a ten-inch LP by the Soviet Melodiya label, puts both the piece and the performer in a fresh, appealing light. Even the somma passione is kept in perspective – a spontaneous, touching swell of feeling, that gushes up and immediately subsides. That brief impulsive outburst (and, much harder to achieve, its subsidence) requires the most exacting and strategic calibration of manual weight: something that only pianists who have been there will fully appreciate.
You may have to take my description of this early Cliburn performance on faith; as a teenager I was lucky enough to get a copy in the mail from doting Russian relatives. The Cliburn Widmungs you will find on YouTube are later performances. The version that had the widest circulation comes from an RCA Victor LP called My Favorite Encores, issued in 1970. The somma passione has morphed into a tsunami, the arpeggios that introduce it have grown oceanic, and subsidence is minimal. It is a Texas-sized performance by someone used to bringing down huge houses. At twenty-three, Cliburn had been a precociously refined artist; as he approached forty he had regressed into a conservatory jock, responding and catering to what Eggli calls bürgerlichen Publikumsgeschmack, the taste of the bourgeois public. (Schumann, of course, would have spoken of Philister, philistines.)
Do I sound like a snob? I hope not: first, because I have actually listened and compared; but second, because I well remember the snobbish way Cliburn was written off by the prejudiced and the envious in his glory days, and by none more loftily than us junior aesthetes at New York’s High School of Music and Art, where I was a sophomore in his time of triumph. That drawling, lugubrious bohunk from Texas, we thought. (The phrase is John Updike’s, describing Lyndon Johnson, but it can’t be bettered.) A churchgoing Baptist, a mama’s boy, “a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding”, as James Thurber might have said – who needed to hear him? By October 1960 there was the romantically exotic, and undeniably great, Sviatoslav Richter to gawk at and worship. Formerly kept at home as politically unreliable, Richter was sent on a ten-week American tour as if to show that, Cliburn or no Cliburn, the Soviets had the best pianists as well as the best rockets. We certainly thought so. One of my classmates sent him a poem – “Rikhter – Mad condor / clipped winged / Struggling against the sun / Piano, / player, / and harpy footed stool shall rise”, etc – and had an answer: “It is a tremendous thing to receive such a letter!” Could Cliburn with all his fan clubs elicit or respond to such a poem? Well, then! The very best part of Nigel Cliff’s book is the refutation it delivers, half a century on, to puncture our airs. Citing the archived ballots and minutes of the 1958 Tchaikovsky jury, he reveals that it was none other than Richter who, having seen a kindred spirit and proclaimed him a genius, lobbied most intensely for Cliburn, even resorting to chicanery like giving zeros to his rivals (on a scale from 1 to 25) to knock them out of the running.
The story of how Richter’s widely shared but politically fraught judgement ultimately prevailed is now one of the legends of twentieth-century music, but it is not very well understood. Cliff is helpful. There was never a doubt in the competition hall who deserved to win. But there were doubts aplenty about the integrity of the contest. Back home, once reports of Cliburn’s progress through the rounds began seeping out, the question was not whether the competition would be fixed but how. Those who thought the whole thing a sham engineered to enhance Soviet claims of cultural superiority assumed that the winner – perhaps all the winners – would have to be chosen from among the Soviet entrants. (This actually came close to happening on the violin side of the contest, with six of eight prizes, including the gold medal, going to the home team.) Those who thought the objective was to impress the world with Soviet magnanimity (as even stronger evidence of confident superiority) assumed that they would award the prize to a foreigner. After Cliburn’s victory they thought their surmise vindicated. What Cliff’s account reveals is that the judging of the competition was honest, but at all times subjected to political vetting: at first by some of the Soviet jury members, Dmitry Kabalevsky most prominently, who accused the Cliburn supporters of a lack of patriotism; then by Nikolai Mikhailov, the Minister of Culture, to whom the dispute was referred, but who quailed at the prospect of assuming responsibility for the outcome; and so, third, by Nikita Khrushchev himself, who was shrewd enough to see that awarding the prize to an American would be a propaganda coup – though even he did not foresee how right he would turn out to be.
And this returns us to the matter of Cliburn’s sad regression. Cassandra prophecies and cautionary tales greet all sudden and spectacular ascents, and the critics outdid themselves in foreboding where the rawboned Cliburn was concerned. One was truly prescient: Paul Henry Lang, a musicologist who was chief critic for the New York Herald Tribune. Writing after the Carnegie Hall concert at which Cliburn repeated his winning Moscow combo of Tchaik 1 and Rach 3, Lang warned that he might become “a flesh and blood juke box which at the insertion of the proper coin always plays the same tune”.
That is just what happened. His complaisant nature, combined with high-power, high-pressure management, ensured that Cliburn would be – in a sense far removed from the Soviet meaning of the title but just as real – a People’s Artist, “performing” (as he put it himself) “for all people all over the world; not just musicians, but for everyone”, and that his repertoire would become stagnant. His audience expected always to relive his triumphant exploits at his concerts, and so his stagnant repertoire became hackneyed as well. Cliff lists his seventeen concertos at one point, and what a predictable menu they were. If you know anything about the habits of what Rachmaninoff called “elephants” (championship-level performers), you can reel them off. Of Beethoven’s five, only the last three made the cut, along with two of Rachmaninoff’s four (the middle two, plus the Paganini Rhapsody), only one of Prokofiev’s five (the Third), both of Brahms’s and both of Liszt’s, the Firsts by Chopin and Tchaikovsky, the Grieg and Schumann singletons, and one lonely concerto out of Mozart’s twenty-seven – the big C Major, K.503, the only blockbuster in the lot. If you’ve been keeping count, you know that there is one more, and if you are a canny concert manager like Arthur Judson, you know it has to be the MacDowell Second (not the First, which nobody plays), as befits the repertoire of an American cultural ambassador. That was the list, the whole list, and for Cliburn, it would be nothing but the list – a life sentence.
The life got sadder as it lengthened, culminating in a catastrophic burnout in 1978, which ushered in a sixteen-year hiatus or – the managers’ euphemism – “sabbatical”, from which Cliburn tried to emerge in 1994. A documentary film made that year to herald the comeback tour, Van Cliburn: Concert pianist, ends on a note of purported triumph, but it depressed me to watch it. It shows Cliburn at Chicago’s Grant Park, playing to an outdoor, non-paying audience estimated at 350,000, accompanied as in the old days by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, with the American conductor Leonard Slatkin standing in for Cliburn’s old Soviet partner Kirill Kondrashin (who had died during the sabbatical), as if to memorialize Cliburn’s place as a walking buffer between the superpowers. But Russia was no longer a superpower in 1994, and unlike Vladimir Horowitz, who in 1965 had returned from twelve years of psychological paralysis a new man with a whole new repertoire (making comparisons inevitable), Cliburn had not grown in retreat. Just as Lang had predicted thirty-six years earlier, the old coin was dropped again and out came the Cliburn theme song, Tchaik 1, which the fifty-nine-year-old pianist had been performing since the age of twelve, now slowed down and bloated up to a lumbering grandioso, with every phrase, once the piano got the tune, mauled into an inflated, affected espressivo. The tour ended in a fiasco on Cliburn’s sixtieth birthday in July when, just before a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, he lost his nerve, cancelled Rach 3, and offered instead a bouquet of badly received and mercilessly reviewed “favourite encores” that – inevitably – included “Widmung”.
Yet if that late outing with Tchaik 1 was Cliburn’s nadir, you can see him at his zenith on one of the VAI DVDs, at a 1962 concert in Moscow, playing the same concerto before an audience that included Khrushchev, Anastas Mikoyan (the great survivor from Stalin’s Politburo), Aleksey Kosygin (who two years later would supplant Khrushchev as Soviet premier) and (according to Nigel Cliff) an unseen Andrey Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister. It is a thrilling performance, perhaps the best I have ever seen or heard of that ubiquitous piece. Cliburn plays assertively, indeed commandingly, no longer a talented boy who has been brilliantly trained by the last living mistress of a great tradition, but as one of its living masters, a great pianist, peaking prematurely at the age of twenty-eight. Afterwards, in endearingly broken Russian, he announces an encore, Chopin’s F minor Fantasy, op. 49, which “I want to play for Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev”. The Soviet premier, we learn from Nigel Cliff, had told Cliburn in 1958 that it was his favourite piece. To hear it, Khrushchev and the other bosses have to be summoned back from the green room, where, thinking the concert was over, they had repaired to congratulate the pianist. He comes out into his box to laughter and cheers from the audience, bows graciously to Cliburn, clapping the while. While Cliburn plays the Fantasy (which, in Cliff’s somewhat improbable version, Khrushchev had cited in 1958 by its opus number), the camera lingers on Nikita Sergeyevich, who is cradling his head with his right hand and dreamily conducting along with his left. The following weekend, he invited Cliburn to a family picnic at his dacha.
This little summit meeting is the one fleeting justification in the book for the author’s hyperbolic portrayal of his hero as a Cold War leading man. The early chapters alternate vignettes from the lives of Cliburn and Khrushchev, as if limning parallel rises. We get gratuitous, breathlessly narrated vignettes of Stalin’s death, Khrushchev’s “secret speech”, the Sputnik launch, Khrushchev’s “kitchen debate” with Nixon, his visit to the United States, the U-2 debacle, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, and so on, as if Cliburn had something to do with them. Casting the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition as a Cold War turning point is a footless conceit, even if it lends the book a vivid shape, just as it is a misreading of Cliburn’s role in musical and diplomatic affairs to see him as an American cultural ambassador.
If anything, he was a Soviet ambassador. He had not been sent to Russia by the American government, the way the State Department sent orchestras and jazz greats. The name Cliburn is not even to be found in the index of Danielle Fosler-Lussier’s Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy (2015), the most comprehensive account of the subject. But he does figure prominently – and fittingly – in Kiril Tomoff’s Virtuosi Abroad: Soviet music and imperial competition during the early Cold War, 1945–1958 (2015), whose jacket sports a picture of Cliburn playing Tchaik 1 in the final round of the book’s culminating event. He had entered the Tchaikovsky Competition on his own (or rather, Mme Lhévinne’s) initiative, with the aid of a Martha Baird Rockefeller Fellowship, a private foundation grant. His victory took the American authorities, and the American musical establishment, equally by surprise. (The Juilliard dean, Mark Schubart, hurried to Moscow to see his winning round only after learning that it was unexpectedly looming.) It was furiously spun by both sides as a propaganda victory, but the Soviets got by far the greater share of cultural capital from it, for it was they, after all, who had recognized “Vanya” Cliburn and effectively created his myth.
Vanya could always be depended on thereafter to speak well of the country and its people, and could do it with impunity even at the tensest moments. On his triumphant return from Moscow in 1958, giving the first of countless interviews to American media, he said of the Soviets, “They are very warm individuals. They love very strongly. And yes, they are very sincere as a people. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t refrain from telling them that they are very much like Texans”. That was the kind of talk that was fondly supposed to ease tensions between the superpowers, and the older Cliburn, forgotten by everyone but the Soviets, went on being trotted out as an affable relic or monstre sacré to soften up the Russians at difficult moments right up to the end, when he was summoned out of his sabbatical to a command performance at the Reagan–Gorbachev White House summit in 1987. He played the expected jukebox selections, including three items he had recorded on that ten-inch Melodiya disk twenty-nine years earlier (“Widmung” dependably among them) and ended with the Soviet pop chestnut, by Vasiliy Solovyov-Sedoy, whose title Cliff has appropriated for the title of his book. In 1958 he had charmed his hosts by making it the last encore in his post-contest concert; three decades later, singing along himself, he gets the whole Russian delegation to chime in, amid laughter and applause.
Cliff’s reading of its effect is starry-eyed. “The next day,” he writes,
every network will lead with the scene of “Moscow Nights” at the White House, and Van will once again make front page headlines around the world for drawing out the humanity of a Soviet leader. Nancy Reagan will call the performance one of the greatest moments of her husband’s presidency. And Mikhail Gorbachev will be noticeably warmer as [he and the President] begin negotiations on the most ambitious arms control treaty in history.
On the next page, getting reckless, he credits Cliburn with something even more momentous. “As Western values seeped in, with music in the vanguard, the Soviet state lost credibility with its own people.” And then, this:
Van’s secret was that he lovingly played back to Russia the passionate, soul-searching intensity that was its culture’s great contribution to the world, while embodying the freedom that most Americans took for granted and the Soviets sorely lacked. It was a devastating combination.
But wily George Will, the conservative news commentator (quoted by Cliff, who seems not to notice the divergence of opinion), gets it right when, after Cliburn has the room singing, he “leans over to Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, and whispers, ‘That song just cost you 200 ships’”. Will understood who had softened up whom.
It will never happen again. My strongest reaction to the book was a pang of recognition that classical music is no longer seen, even fatuously, as an arena for national policy. It no longer represents nations; only elites. That, rather than the end of superpower competition, is the big change that Cliburn’s decline symbolizes. He was indeed a significant figure, and worthy of a book that says so, but Cliff puts him in the wrong context. He was the protagonist – or perhaps, more accurately, the figurehead – of the moment when classical music enjoyed a pinnacle of popularity and prestige from which it would plummet almost immediately. The 60s was the decade in which, as sociologists have shown and sought to explain, big changes in musical taste and consumption patterns, reflecting changes in demography and social attitudes, caused classical music to return to its tiny social niche after a few decades of pumped-up status vouchsafed by the New Deal and the touting of middlebrow culture.
Educated people, who until the 1960s habitually “graduated” from popular music to genres – classical, jazz, folk – with higher social status on entering college, began retaining their popular music allegiances into adulthood, as they still do. Since then, no classical musician who was not already popular in the 50s (perhaps only Leonard Bernstein besides Cliburn) has figured as a mass cultural or political icon, and such icons as still existed were worshipped nostalgically, by ageing fans. The pre-concert interviews at Grant Park in 1994, preserved in Cliburn’s documentary video, showed this vividly. The huge audience that had assembled to hear his comeback consisted mainly of the retired, who were still comparing him with Elvis. The Cold War created the specific conditions that brought Cliburn to his unique, never to be equalled, peak, but it also created the trap that caught him as if in amber and prevented his full maturation as an artist.
Just as Nigel Cliff portrays Cliburn in dual ascent with Khrushchev, they effectively come to a dual end in his book. Cliburn’s post-Khrushchev years were wan, and Cliff allots less than one-tenth of the book’s space to them. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines became, faute de mieux, his patrons; how much further could one get from the Soviet-tinctured idealism Cliburn loved so long to profess? (And how symbolic of the kind of company classical music is now forced to keep.) He was hit with a palimony suit that, although dismissed, outed him against his will as gay. The last two decades, after the aborted comeback tour, merit only eight bleak pages. The piano competition that a consortium of Texas businessmen endowed in his name in 1962 continues to this day as a monument to his career, but neither it nor the Tchaikovsky Competition, which still limps back into quadrennial undeath in Moscow, arouse the kind of notice they once commanded. They have not, and will never, produce another Van Cliburn.