The legendary Emil Gilels, one of the judges who awarded Cliburn the top prize in Moscow in 1958, said at the time "his inborn artistry and subtle musicianship ennoble all that he plays. His victory at such a difficult contest may be truly termed brilliant.'' A few years later, in his classic study of the world's great pianists, Harold C. Schoenberg noted that "of all the Americans of his generation, Cliburn was able to produce the most sensuous of sounds … rich, never percussive, a real piano sound that reminded old-timers of the great romantic pianists of the past.''
Van Cliburn was born in Louisiana on July 12, 1934, the son of Harvey Lavan Cliburn and Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn. The family moved to Texas when the boy was only six, and by 12 the prodigy had won every major local piano competition. His Carnegie Hall debut in 1954, playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 under Dmitri Mitropolous' baton, offered the music world a preview of what would become his signature piece and the occasion of his Moscow victory four years later.
Cliburn's ties to the grand romantic school of piano were close from the start of his career: His only teacher for the first 17 years of his life was his indomitable mother, herself a pupil of Arthur Friedheim, who was a pupil of Franz Liszt. Later, at the Juilliard School, the young pianist studied at his mother's urging with the acclaimed Russian pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne. "Van was so teachable,'' recalled a proud Mrs. Cliburn in 1958, "and always so respectful and quick to learn.''
He learned fast, and his love and respect for great music only grew. Tours all over the world followed his Tchaikovsky Competition triumph, a growing series of definitive recordings added to his popularity, and even a decade-long sabbatical from public performances only increased the disarming directness of his romantic touch when he returned to the concert circuit in 1987. In honor of Cliburn's return to the concert stage, the eight-disc Van Cliburn Collection was released on the RCA Victor label, containing many of Cliburn's classic concerto recordings: Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1; Rachmaninoff Concertos Nos. 2 and 3; Prokofiev Concerto No. 3; Brahms' Concerto No. 2; and Rachmaninoff's "Variations on a Theme of Paganini." His current touring schedule includes performances across the country from Tanglewood to Thousand Oaks, California.
Cliburn has performed for royalty, heads of state in Europe, Asia, and South America and for every President of the United States since Harry Truman.
Cliburn's selfless devotion to music has been expressed in other ways as well. At the height of his early career, Cliburn made time to encourage and nourish young talent with the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. First held in 1962, this competition is held in Fort Worth every four years. It is an integral part of Cliburn's living legacy, a bright and hopeful signpost for the future of American music.