During the Cold War, Van Cliburn brought warmth

In his book "When the World Stopped to Listen," Stuart Isacoff chronicles Van Cliburn's triumph at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition.
In his book "When the World Stopped to Listen," Stuart Isacoff chronicles Van Cliburn's triumph at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition.

The most fascinating history books search beyond the decisions of great men and women and illuminate how those larger struggles affected those who did not make policy, such as musicians. In his new book pianist and writer Isacoff has done an excellent job of focusing on a smaller story in context of the Cold War — pianist Van Cliburn’s taking first place at the first Tchikovsky Competition held in Moscow in 1958.

“When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath” is probably a must-read for Van Cliburn fans, but also an excellent title for Cold War history buffs. In 1958, both the United States and the Soviet Union had a lot riding on the competition. With Russia’s launching of Sputnik, Americans’ leadership in technology had been challenged, with some wounds in national pride. Although Van Cliburn’s performance in Moscow and Sputnik “could have seemed unrelated in 1956, they would soon become twin cogs in the gears of history,” Issacoff writes. As the competition approached, both Americans and Russians began to call Cliburn the “American Sputnik,” he writes

For the Soviets, the competition (for violinists and pianists) was a potential economic windfall but also “a propagandist’s dream. Still basking in its scientific glory, in the space race, the USSR would not be propelled to impressive artistic heights ....” Isacoff writes. The Soviets also needed money, and had been exploring the idea “that wealthy visitors from abroad could solve the nation’s financial problems.” The music competition might be the right event “to generate the kind of positive publicity needed to make Moscow a more desirable destination for money-bearing visitors,” Isacoff writes.

Cliburn, 24, a Juilliard student, reluctantly entered the competition, in part because his teacher Rosina Lhevinne wrote to him, “I believe you will win.” Cliburn, from east Texas, was unfailingly polite and gracious with colleagues and fans. Isacoff writes that “Van’s lack of sophistication wasn’t always a bad thing.” He quotes Heinrich Neuhaus, a member of the competition’s jury, who saw Cliburn as “childlike and playful, often embarrassingly earnest, and subject to moments of intense religiosity.” Isaacoff adds: “The artlessness of the man, [Neuhaus] asserted, was the bedrock of his art.”

Cliburn entered an ideological as well as musical competition. Emil Gilels, the Russian chairman of the contest jury, was under immense pressure to anoint a Russian pianist with the top prize. Isacoff quotes ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who was familiar with the behind-the-scenes jockeying at the competition. Gilels, she wrote, was accused of “lack of patriotism, shamed, and threatened” by Soviet officials. He was encouraged to at least have Cliburn share the top prize with a Russian pianist. The Americans, on the other hand, had concerns with Van Cliburn and his affinity for the Russians (he would after the competition become friends with Premier Nikita Khrushchev) and his admiration for their music history and love of music.

Cliburn wowed the judges (none of whom were American) and the audience with his playing. Isacoff writes: “But ask any Russian about what made Van’s playing stand out and there would be a singular response: a hand placed palm-down over the heart.”

His career took off, and Isacoff chronicles how sickness, a daunting touring schedule, and the constant pushing from his mom and musical mentor Rildia Bee Cliburn eventually wore him down. Cliburn stopped touring for awhile, and find personal happiness through is relationship with his partner Tommy Smith.

More than a history of this historic competition, Isacoff’s book is a testament to the power music has to transcend differences — when people stop to listen.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

“When the World Stopped to Listen”

By Stuart Isacoff (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95)