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.”