Van Cliburn, the internationally renowned American cultural ambassador and one of the greatest pianists in the history of music, died at his Fort Worth, Texas, home on Wednesday. He was 78 and had been suffering from advanced bone cancer first diagnosed in mid-August 2012.
Having played for royalty, heads of state and every American President since Harry Truman, Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr., the Shreveport, Louisiana-born son of an oil industry executive, began taking piano lessons from his mother Rildia when he was 3. She remained his teacher for the next 17 years.
The family moved to Texas when the prodigy was 6, and he debuted with the Houston Symphony Orchestra at age 12 – then trained at Julliard and debuted at Carnegie Hall at 20, in 1954, playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1.
Four years later, with the same piece, he claimed his historic victory in the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. He has been famous ever since.
According to a 1981 PEOPLE profile, for all of Cliburn’s post-Moscow fame, he was always notably open and not temperamental. A lifelong bachelor, he happily obliged autograph seekers and habitually grabbed checks when he took pals to expensive restaurants.
Among his countless awards were a 2001 Kennedy Center Honor and a 2004 Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. In 2003 President George W. Bush bestowed upon him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a year later President Vladimir Putin presented him the Order of Friendship. In 2010 President Barack awarded him a National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal.
When Obama – who noted that the lanky Cliburn was even taller than he was – placed the medal and its purple ribbon around Cliburn’s neck at the White House ceremony, a military aide read the citation praising the pianist for having “reached across political frontiers with the universal message of beautiful music.”
As was also said in the program notes at the time of his Kennedy Center Honor, “Cliburn’s selfless devotion to music has been expressed in other ways as well. At the height of his early career, Cliburn made time to encourage and nourish young talent with the first Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. First held in 1962, this competition is held in Fort Worth every four years. It is an integral part of Cliburn’s living legacy, a bright and hopeful signpost for the future of American music.”
He is survived by Thomas L. Smith.