Cliburn knew he wanted to be a pianist at the age of 5. He was playing with nationally acclaimed orchestras such as the Houston Symphony by the time he was 12. His first piano teacher was his mother. When Cliburn was 23 years old he went to Russian to compete in the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow at a time when the cold war was at its height. Russia intended to use the competition to show the world that it was the superior power in classical piano, however Cliburn’s performance astounded Russia and the world. Cliburn played Tchaikovsky’s First Piano concerto, then he played Rachmaninoff’s Third. Applause thundered through the hall. One man remarked that Cliburn played as if Rachmaninoff had played the piece. Cliburn was allowed to win the competition only after Khrushchev, himself, approved. Cliburn’s talent and appreciation of the Russian people helped to bring a tentative harmony between the US and Russia. The only ticker-tape parade held for a classical artist was thrown when Cliburn arrived in New York heralding his talent and diplomacy. His good looks, quiet manners, and Christian principals allowed this young to act as an unofficial United States ambassador.
To illustrate the extent of Van Cliburn international fame, I have snipped a search done in Lexis Nexis Academic which shows the mere beginnings of the list of articles published around the world about this man.