In this book review of Nigel Cliff’s new book MOSCOW NIGHTS The Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, James Barron focuses on the premise of what Van Cliburn’s role was in thawing relations during tense times.
…one of Cliff’s challenges is to present a basic biography of this “man-child who was old when young and young when old.” Cliburn’s story – how he rocketed to fame by winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at age 23 – has been told before, in 16 excellent pages toward the beginning of Joseph Horowitz’s “The Ivory Trade” (1990) and in Howard Reich’s “Van Cliburn” (1993). But their emphasis was more on the music than on diplomacy and the Cold War. By the time Cliburn arrived in Moscow in the spring of 1958, the United States had countered the Soviets’ Sputnik 1 and 2 with Explorer 1, but the psychological damage had been done. There was a space race as well as an arms race.
As for the piano race, everyone assumed a Russian would win, probably 29-year-old Lev Vlassenko. But Cliburn captivated the crowds and caused a problem for the judges: Could they award him the gold medal? As Cliff writes, “in a system where all decisions went through the party, there was only one way to avoid blame: Refer it upward.” One of the judges, the pianist Emil Gilels, went to the culture minister, who went to Khrushchev, who did not interfere. If the young American is the best, he said, go right ahead, give him the prize. Cliburn remains the only American pianist who has won the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition.
Cliff argues that “a powerful new weapon exploded across the Soviet Union” when Cliburn sat down at the piano – “love: one man’s love for music, which ignited an impassioned love affair between him and an entire nation.” It was anything but illicit. Max Frankel, who as a New York Times correspondent was a witness to Cliburn’s triumph, wrote later that “the Soviet public celebrated Cliburn not only for his artistry but for his nationality; affection for him was a safe expression of affection for America.”
Mostly Cliburn served as a relief valve, easing the pressures his audiences felt. He did so again in 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev went to Washington for arms-control talks with President Ronald Reagan. After a particularly difficult day, Cliburn played at the White House. When he struck up the Russian melody “Moscow Nights” as an encore – Raisa Gorbachev wanted to hear the Tchaikovsky concerto, but there was no orchestra – Cliff writes that the evening “turned into a full-throated singalong.” Everyone went to bed in a much better mood. read more at nytimes.com