Van Cliburn, the classical pianist honored by a New York ticker-tape parade for winning a major Moscow competition in 1958, died Wednesday after a battle with bone cancer, his publicist tells Highlight Hollywood. “He died peacefully in his Fort Worth, Texas, home … surrounded by loved ones,” spokeswoman Mary Lou Falcone said. Cliburn, 78, won the International Tchaikovsky Competition months after the Soviet Union stunned Americans with the successful launch of Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth. His victory swelled U.S. pride when it was near a Cold War low.
When his illness was made public last August, Falcone said “His spirits are high.”
“Van Cliburn was an international legend for over five decades, a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy,” she said Wednesday. “He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met.”
He was credited with improving cultural relations between the two superpowers. Cliburn toured the Soviet Union several times through the 1960s during the height of tensions. Cliburn, considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, performed for every U.S. president since Harry Truman, according to his official biography.
At the end of the ticker-tape parade in May 1958, the 23-year-old address the crowd at New York’s city hall. “I appreciate more than you will ever know that you are honoring me, but the thing that thrills me the most is that you are honoring classical music,” Cliburn said. “Because I’m only one of many. I’m only a witness and a messenger. Because I believe so much in the beauty, the construction, the architecture invisible, the importance for all generations, for young people to come that it will help their minds, develop their attitudes and give them values. That is why I’m so grateful that you have honored me in that spirit.”