A few years ago, on a stroll through Moscow’s famous Gorky Park, British historian Nigel Cliff explained his latest project to Aschen Mikoyan, the granddaughter of a leading official in the communist Soviet Union and a lifelong friend of legendary pianist Van Cliburn.
And Mikoyan was skeptical.
“She said something like, ‘I can’t imagine there is anything left to say,’ about Van and the Tchaikovsky Competition,” Cliff recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Cliff no doubt encountered similar reservations in Fort Worth where, in the last decades of his life, Cliburn was a friend and neighbor to many.
People here certainly know the story of how in 1958, at the height of the Cold War, a lanky, baby-faced pianist from Texas stunned the world by going to Russia and winning that country’s most prestigious music competition. Fort Worth remembers more than most how Cliburn single-handedly inspired a thaw in the Cold War, and at home became as famous as Elvis.
But Cliff has an emphatic answer to the skeptics.
In his new biography, Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story. How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War (Harper, $28.99), he demonstrates that maybe we didn’t really know the story after all, at least not in its full richness, drama, humanity and complexity. The book will be released Tuesday.
Beginning shortly after Cliburn’s death in 2013, Cliff interviewed scores of people around the world. He gained access to thousands of pages of documents, such as the jury slips from the Tchaikovsky, the personal notes of Cliburn’s teacher at the Juilliard School and investigative records from the State Department and the FBI.
The result is an elegant, insightful and ultimately definitive account of one of the 20th century’s most compelling events, and the extraordinary artist and person at the heart of it. Though the author never met Cliburn, Cliff came away with a sense of the man that was shared by most who knew him.
“He was impossibly humble, impossibly gracious, impossibly kind, and also very innocent,” Cliff said. “I think the innocence, the naivete, had to have been the key to his success in Moscow.
“He was this wonderful kind and generous man who poured his heart out, and the Russians responded. I think his innocence is the key to the book.”
Finding the story
Cliff, whose previous work includes The Shakespeare Riots, the chronicle of a bloody American episode of the mid-1800s, and another book on the voyages of explorer Vasco da Gama, had been searching for a new topic, preferably involving the Cold War or music.
“They had been in my mind, and when I read Van’s obituary, the whole thing just clicked for me,” he said. “I knew very little about it. I thought, ‘My god, this is such a beautiful and important story. People should know about it. It’s faded away.’ ”
Early on in his research, Cliff watched film footage of Cliburn’s Moscow triumph, with starry-eyed young women clutching the edge of the stage and a packed concert hall about to erupt.
You can see him, this light in the darkness of the Cold War. That simple idea drew me to the story in first place. The facts fit the feeling.
Author Nigel Cliff
“He is such a presence, an angelic figure,” Cliff said. “You can see him, this light in the darkness of the Cold War. That simple idea drew me to the story in the first place. The facts fit the feeling.”
The book is a chilling reconstruction of the times, the death of Joseph Stalin, the rise of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, heightening tensions between the United States and the USSR, and Russia’s launch of the first satellite, Sputnik.
“In the age of civil defense and air-raid sirens, when schoolchildren practiced crouching under desks or in dark basements while clasping their heads to keep their skulls from flying apart, people needed no help to be afraid,” Cliff wrote. “Men and women interviewed on the news asked the same question: If Russia had Sputnik, what else did they have up there?
“The moat of oceans that had kept Americans safe from mass destruction through two world wars had been leapt over in a single fiery burst.”
Into the moment stepped young Cliburn, the son of an East Texas oilman, a prodigy who had been taught piano by his mother. Texas would certainly not contain his talent. At age 18, he auditioned at Juilliard for the legendary teacher Rosina Lhevinne, herself a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory.
Cliff describes Cliburn’s performance for Lhevinne of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody:
“Both hands away, flying along the keyboard like a ballerina’s feet barely brushing the floor. A moment of tranquility, his head back now, eyes closed, forehead creased at the exquisite beauty of the thing, his soul swelling with every note. … The unusual boy was not only playing with startling control and power, but he was also constructing something uncommonly noble, sensitive and heartfelt. More than that, he had a big, sweeping approach that she had not seen in years: a grand style that uncannily echoed the dashing virtuosos of her youth.
“His playing thrilled a deep Russian chord in her. She found space in her class.”
By 23, Cliburn had won the prestigious Leventritt Competition in New York, but his early career had been up and down. He had needed to be begged to enter the first Tchaikovsky Competition, created by the Soviets to showcase the fact that their superiority extended to matters of culture.
Then came the Moscow madness, as Cliburn transfixed the people of a Cold War enemy, playing Russian music: Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.
“It was impossible to see Van, with his curly blond hair and beautiful long fingers, as the enemy,” Cliff writes.
“He was kind, and sensitive and charming, and modest, and very tall, and a bit of a mama’s boy. He disliked rock ’n’ roll and espoused Russian virtues such as sentiment and nostalgia. The more they heard about him, the more they found him ‘just like us.’
“Girls bearing flowers began pursuing him for autographs. They carefully cut out his photograph from the papers and slept with it under their pillows. Suddenly, they had a Westerner they could safely adore. Their mothers could hardly complain, since they, too, had fallen in love with the sweet, vulnerable American.”
As had the rest of the nation. Khrushchev apparently did not hesitate to bless the decision of the jury. Cliburn was named the winner.
“I think you get the national sense of relief on both sides,” Cliff said in the recent interview. “It turned out they were all human beings and could get on with each other. The front-page picture of Khrushchev and Van hugging made a massive impact psychologically on people.
“It didn’t change the machinations of the political game, but it did change the temperature. It sort of warmed up the Cold War.”
Cliburn’s homecoming included a historic ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, appearances on national television and then an inhuman schedule to keep up with concert demands.
‘Patriotism under fire’
During Khrushchev’s state visit to the United States in 1959, front-page photos captured the renewed affection between the Soviet leader and his young American friend. There were investigations by the FBI and State Department, inspired by the guileless, apolitical artist’s unabashed love for Mother Russia.
“With his patriotism under fire,” Cliff writes, “Van was forced to state publicly that he was not a Communist or a Soviet agent, though he refused to apologize for his taste in friends. ‘These are my kind of people,’ he defiantly said of the Russians.”
In 1978, Cliburn stepped away from the keyboard, and seven years later, moved with his mother from New York City to Fort Worth, the home of the prestigious international piano competition that bears his name.
“He was grateful for everything but ready to give it all up, for the same reason he had coped remarkably well with fame: He did not care all that much for it,” Cliff writes. “Fame was a vehicle for a sacred trust: to spread the glory of classical music.
“Yet he had done virtually nothing else for twenty years, and he was tired. He was tired of the perfectionist’s edginess he had never shaken off. … He was tired of giving his heart and being bruised by politics. He was tired of being hailed as a hero and being watched all the time.”
It just shows how a regular person can make his mark on the world, just by having extraordinary character and a simple soul, with kindness and love for everyone.
Author Nigel Cliff
The book’s most ascendant passages, however, may actually come toward the last, with the description of Cliburn’s re-emergence in December 1987. It was the tense Washington, D.C., summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Cliburn’s White House recital ended with an impromptu rendition of Moscow Nights. The soloist led the singing.
“The solemn occasion has turned into a full-throated sing-along,” Cliff writes. “Flashbulbs are popping. The Russians start applauding. Van stands up on the last note, gives a couple of hand claps to the choir, and bounds down to the guests of honor. Gorbachev jumps to his feet. Van hugs him, kisses him on the cheeks, pats him warmly on the back, speaks in his ear; and grasps his shoulder. …Vice President Bush watches them leave with a look of patrician wonder. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it in this house,’ he says. … Nancy Reagan will call the performance one of the greatest moments of her husband’s presidency.”
Cliburn kept a sporadic performance schedule after that, until his death from cancer in 2013 at the age of 78. Cliff’s own acquaintance with the man began soon thereafter.
After three years of research and writing, Cliff said he had one major regret: that he never met his subject.
“I grew to love him,” he said.
As part of his research, Cliff viewed Cliburn’s hourlong video about serving others. Fort Worth’s Worthington Hotel had used it to train its staff.
“He was taught to serve people through music,” the author said. “That was one key to the man, I think. He was an extremely amazing and touching individual. He maintained his gentleness, even when he was a superstar. He was an ordinary person, not a politician.
“It just shows how a regular person can make his mark on the world, just by having extraordinary character and a simple soul, with kindness and love for everyone.”
Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story. How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
- By Nigel Cliff
- Harper, $28.99