Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1962

Harvey Lavan Cliburn, better known simply as Van Cliburn, shocked the world in 1958 when he traveled to the Soviet Union and won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at a peak of the Cold War. Cliburn was in debt and unable to afford the trip, but a $1,000 grant from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music program made his participation, and ultimate triumph, possible. The acclaimed pianist subsequently played for Reagan and Gorbachev at the White House, for the New York Philharmonic’s 100th anniversary, and at other momentous occasions. Nearly as popular in the Soviet Union as in America, he became a performing ambassador for the universality of classical music in a divided world.

In his honor, certain of his friends and some music teachers in Fort Worth, Texas, raised funds to create the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1962. Held every four years as a kind of Olympiad for young pianists, the competition awards large cash prizes and three years of concert management services to its champions. Since its inception as the funder and organizer of the competition, the Van Cliburn Foundation has sought to bring the highest-quality music to audiences around the world.

Thanks to support from corporations and foundations, the organizers have also been able to broadcast the competitions, stream them live on the Internet, and produce documentaries behind the scenes. In addition, in 1999, the foundation launched an international piano competition for outstanding amateurs over age 35. The Van Cliburn prize has become one of the most sought-after competition awards in all of music.