Kilgore-raised Houston Symphony Orchestra alum pianist Van Cliburn has died at the age of 78, according to the Dallas Morning News. Sources say he passed away early this morning in Fort Worth, which he had called home these past 27 years.
A former child prodigy, Cliburn was a worldwide sensation after winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at age 23 in 1958. He came home to a ticker-tape parade in New York, the only one ever given a classical musician. His win at the Tchaikovsky Competition (reportedly approved by then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev) is credited with bridging that icy gap between the United States and the Soviet Union when tensions were at a high. (Cliburn would eventually play at a White House dinner with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in attendance in 1987 during friendlier times between the two countries.) No doubt the story of how this "Texan Conquered Russia" will be retold over and over again this week.
Cliburn was the first classical musician in modern times to achieve rock-star status. At one point, Time even said that he was "the first man in history to be a Horowitz, Liberace and Presley all rolled into one." Remember, that was a time when those last two guys weren't guilded weirdos in most people's minds.
Cliburn had an illustrious career that included the 1962 creation of the Van Cliburn International Music Competition, held every four years in Fort Worth. He won accolades from every corner, receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 and the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation the following year. Cliburn, who continued to rehearse until recently, made his last public appearance in September at the 50th anniversary of the competition that bears his name.
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Cliburn was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2012.