On this date HARVEY LAVAN “VAN” CLIBURN JR. achieved worldwide recognition by becoming the first American to win the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. He was all of 23. The competition was designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War, on the heels of their technological victory with the Sputnik launch in October 1957.
Cliburn’s performance at the competition finale of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 earned him a standing ovation lasting eight minutes. When it was time to announce a winner, the judges were obliged to ask permission of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev asked. “Then give him the prize!”
Cliburn returned home to a ticker-tape parade in New York City, the only time the honor has been accorded a classical musician. His cover story in Time proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”