The life and legacy of pianist Van Cliburn

The Panther City performer is still remembered through the internationally renowned Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.


Van Cliburn lived in Fort Worth from 1978 until 2013.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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Today is the 10-year anniversary of Van Cliburn’s death, so we’re looking back at the musician’s life and his contribution to Cowtown.

The early days

Born in Shreveport in 1934, Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn, Jr. started taking piano lessons from his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn, when he was three years old.

The young prodigy made his debut at the Houston Symphony in 1947, performed at Carnegie Hall in 1949, and graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in 1954.


Van Cliburn trying on a Shady Oaks hat from Amon Carter in 1958.

Photo courtesy of UTA Libraries.

The big break

In 1958, 23-year-old Cliburn entered the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He won the hearts of the audience and judges, who asked permission from Cold War Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev before awarding the prize to an American. His performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 launched him to international fame. Watch his performance below.

A life of firsts

Upon returning from Moscow, Cliburn became the first musician to be honored with a ticker-tape parade in New York City. Lauded as one of the best pianists of all time, he received the first Grammy Award for classical music in 1959 and created the first classical album to go triple platinum.

In addition to his many awards and accolades — including a 2003 Presidential Medal of Freedom — Cliburn performed for every US president from 1958 until his death in 2013.

That Fort Worth feeling

Just four years after Cliburn’s historic Tchaikovsky win, Fort Worthians Dr. Irl Allison and Grace Ward Lankford, along with support from community members, launched the inaugural Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at TCU in the musician’s honor.

In 1978, Cliburn decided to take a break from performing and relocated permanently to Cowtown. Take a peak at his 10,000-sqft mansion in Westover Hills.

Today, The Cliburn — working to advance classical piano music and education — is held every four years to support the careers of emerging artists. The foundation presents 170+ performances in each competition cycle for over 150,000 attendees and brings music education to 200,000+ local students.

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