FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Famed pianist Van Cliburn passed away Wednesday at the age of 78. The musician had been suffering from bone cancer since August, and was being cared for at his home in Fort Worth.
According to his publicist, Mary Lou Falcone, the musician died peacefully in his home, surrounded by loved ones. “It always comes as a shock,” she told KRLD. “He’s been ill, diagnosed with bone cancer at the end of August, and valiantly fought and lost the battle.”
Cliburn rose to world fame when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. The year was 1958. It was the height of the Cold War. And Cliburn, from the Texas town of Kilgore, was instrumental in taking the chill off of the tense global setting. “As a matter of fact, I couldn’t refrain from telling them they’re very much like Texans,” he had said.
The musician became an American hero at age 23, returning from Moscow to a ticker tape parade. Time Magazine proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”
Cliburn’s career rose to a steady crescendo afterwards. He performed for every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. And though Cliburn was honored by world leaders, he never forgot about the future generations of classical musicians who would follow in his footsteps. Falcone said, “He’s the champion of young talent forever.”
“An icon has just left us,” said John Giordano, former director of the Fort Worth Symphony and Jury Chairman of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. “The man, musically, set standards that we are still trying to reach.”
The pianist called Fort Worth his home, and a street in the city bears his name. “Well, I’m just overwhelmed,” he said of the honor.
When asked about Cliburn’s lasting memory, Falcone said, “His great humanitarianism, his brilliant musicianship, and his extraordinary legacy that he leaves behind.”
Accomplished pianist Jose Quesada, a graduate student Texas Christian University, said for as great of a musician as Cliburn was, he was an even better person.
“Being a great human being is more than being a great pianist and if you have a combination of both, then it’s wonderful,” said Quesada about his idol.
The Van Cliburn Foundation issued a statement on Wednesday. “Van was a treasured member of the Fort Worth community who belonged to the world,” that statement read, in part. “Van is iconic, and we at the Van Cliburn Foundation join the world in mourning the loss of a true giant.”
The foundation announced that the upcoming Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in May would be dedicated to the pianist’s memory. “As the organization that bears his heroic name, our mission is to carry forward his spirit of spreading the universality and abounding love of classical music across the world in perpetuity,” the foundation’s statement said. “It is a great task, and one those of us who have been inspired by his life, his work, and the sparkle in his eyes take up with tremendous joy and determination.”
Cliburn played on many stages around the globe, from Russia to Cowboys Stadium. He was extraordinarily talented, and he shared that gift with the world. “Texas, America and the world lost a treasure,” tweeted former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. “Van Cliburn was the best, in music and heart.”
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