When Little Is Big

How a $1,000 grant rocked two warring cultures

Much writing about charitable work today is focused on “big.” How to make a “big bet.” Making bigger footprints by replicating your program. Attracting bigger partners to good causes. It’s enticing—who doesn’t love a larger splash? And don’t huge problems require huge solutions?

It’s with these eyes that I recently read ­Moscow Nights by Nigel Cliff, a narrative of the life of concert pianist Van Cliburn. With the trill of a key, he became the Elvis Presley of the U.S.S.R. at the height of the Cold War. Cliff describes Cliburn’s journey to master Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, then bring their deeply Russian music back to the Russian people. In the process, he brought classical music to the masses. And some timely philanthropy propelled him along this journey.

Harvey “Van” Cliburn was born in 1934. His father was a railroad-station agent who became an oil buyer, moving his young family to Kilgore, Texas, in the process. The boy’s mother was a piano teacher whose dream of becoming a concert performer had been hampered by parents who didn’t approve of women as public entertainers. She had studied with a prominent Russian teacher and was a time capsule of a particular style of piano playing no longer in vogue. She would entrust this lost knowledge to her son—who at a young age declared his interest in playing piano for a living, and practiced long enough to back it up.

Mrs. Cliburn sent her son to play at any venue for any audience, starting with hymns at the nearby funeral home before he knew how to read letters on a page. At 12, Van had his first “major” performance: memorizing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and performing for the annual Texas State Music Contest. He won the $200 prize, and played with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. After his brief flirtation with operatic singing was thwarted by puberty, the tracks were laid for him; he would focus on piano, and only piano, for the rest of his life.

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Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story: How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War by Nigel Cliff

After high school his mother escorted him to New York City, where she left him with ­Russian-born Juilliard teacher Rosina Lhévinne. She was, in Cliff’s words, “America’s foremost link to the golden age of Russian Romanticism.” She and her husband, pianist Josef Lhévinne, were classmates of Rachmaninoff, and had immigrated to the U.S. after losing their savings in the Russian Revolution.

A boyish Baptist Texan in New York City drawn to Russian music at a time when it had very little cachet, Cliburn was an anomaly. He had a brush with fame when he won the philanthropically funded ­Leventritt Award and toured the United States for a few years. But after the dew wore off his fresh baby face, and he grew professionally hesitant and anxious, he began to struggle. After his mother took a hard fall, he moved back to Kilgore to keep an eye on her. He took on her students, and began to play for the local Lutheran church. He awaited a draft summons from the Army, which eventually excused him from service because of a long history of nosebleeds and allergies.

Today, we might say Cliburn was then in the “valley of death”—that period between the end of formal study and the confident establishment of vocational credibility. His agent was trying to arrange a European tour, but Van was reluctant to commit. “It was the lowest ebb of his young professional life,” writes Cliff.

Then a series of small philanthropic acts began to accumulate. Rosina Lhévinne heard of a new International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and through sheer will nagged Cliburn into agreeing to participate. Then Juilliard dean Mark Schubart went in search of someone to sponsor the penniless pianist. (Van was known for being generous to a fault. After a piano broke during one of his performances, he immediately bought the hosting church a new piano, taking on debt akin to the size of his car payment.)

After rebuffs from government administrators of the foreign-exchange program, Schubart finally convinced the Martha Baird Rockefeller Aid to Music Program to subsidize Cliburn’s participation in the competition with a $1,000 grant. The reluctant Van had to be convinced to accept the donation.

While Cliff is telling this story, he also describes the rise of Nikita Khrushchev and his spiraling Cold War with the United States. Amidst the late-1950s jousting between the superpowers, the Union of Soviet Composers suggested that a high-profile music competition on Russian soil would be the perfect propaganda opportunity, because “classical music had become prime evidence in the Soviets’ triumphalist case that their political system was the perfected culmination of everything that had come before.” The Soviet state then employed 900,000 arts workers under the Ministry of Culture, and ­operated 503 theater companies, 314 arts middle schools, 48 high schools, and 43 advanced conservatories. A young phenom pianist named Lev Vlassenko was expected to win this inaugural music battle.

But Lev didn’t win, and not because he crumbled. Instead, the Russian people unexpectedly swooned for a sensitive young American who came to their homeland and played their music in a lush style their own performers had forgotten. Van was described as an “American Sputnik” who completely reoriented expectations of what the “philistine nation” could do. After his performances were broadcast across the Soviet Union, Cliburn became a national sensation, with even a teenage following that rivaled rock ‘n’ roll groupies. Khrushchev himself had to give permission to award Cliburn the competition’s first prize.

“Vanya” returned to the U.S.S.R. several times, to ever-increasing and more-excited crowds. His career in the United States skyrocketed as well. He experienced the first—and so far only—tickertape parade staged in New York for a classical musician. He popped up regularly in the White House, including for a summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1987 where he told the world leaders that “I love my home country…but in addition to that…I love the Russian people, and your culture and your art…and it is for both my beloved president and for you that I am so happy to do this.” The night ended in an impromptu singalong with hugs and kisses and applause. Then-Vice-President Bush said, “I’ve never seen anything like it in this house.”

Today the performer’s legacy is continued by the Van Cliburn Foundation, which was organized not by the man himself but by admiring volunteers. The National Guild of Piano Teachers created a $10,000 international competition named in his honor and held in Fort Worth. Now in its sixth decade, the competition is still organized and run entirely by private money and volunteers, and it has launched many sterling careers. The foundation also brings classical artists to Fort Worth for concerts, hosts competitions for amateur pianists, and leads a music-education effort in elementary schools.

Thus did a humble Texan, his driven mom, and a timely philanthropic gift nudge world affairs. Somehow, people adoring the same piece of art, in two very different countries, helped thaw hearts that could have frozen. The Rockefeller grant was a miniature investment with outsized results.  

Ashley May is managing editor of Philanthropy.

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