Cliburn emerged from his sabbatical in 1987, when he played at a state dinner at the White House during the historic visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev leapt from his seat to give the pianist a bear-hug and kisses on the cheeks. Nancy Reagan, then the first lady, has called that night one of the greatest moments of her husband’s presidency.
“After not playing in public for many years, he agreed to make an exception for this occasion, and his beautiful music brought the whole room to tears,” Reagan said in a statement Wednesday, adding that “the world has lost a true treasure.”
Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La., the son of oilman Harvey Cliburn Sr. and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn. At age 3, he began studying piano with his mother, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with a pupil of the great 19th century Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt.
The family moved back to Kilgore within a few years of his birth.
Cliburn won his first Texas competition when he was 12, and two years later he played in Carnegie Hall as the winner of the National Music Festival Award.
At 17, Cliburn attended the Juilliard School in New York, where fellow students marveled at his marathon practice sessions that stretched until 3 a.m. He studied under the famed Russian-born pianist Rosina Lhevinne.
Between 1952 and 1958, he won all but one competition he entered, including the G.B. Dealey Award from the Dallas Symphony, the Kosciusko Foundation Chopin Scholarship and the prestigious Leventritt. By age 20, he had played with the New York Philharmonic and the symphonies of most major cities.
Cliburn’s career seemed ready to take off until his name came up for the draft. He had to cancel all shows but was eventually excused from duty due to chronic nosebleeds.