Van Cliburn, 1934-2013
Many of us were saddened to hear of the passing of Van Cliburn on Wednesday, February 27. A pianist who excelled in music of the romantic repertoire, Cliburn rocketed to fame when he won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, held in Moscow in 1958 at the height of the cold war. Upon his return, he was not just a musical figure but one who took on an additional social and political meaning.
Cliburn's main teacher was his mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn (a student of Arthur Friedheim, one of Franz Liszt's pupils). He interrupted his studies with her in 1951 to come to the Juilliard School and study with famed pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne. Even after his studies ended, the two remained on friendly and affectionate terms.
Rosina Lhevinne's personal papers now reside in the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. A glimpse inside the collection documents a relationship between teacher and student that lasted nearly 35 years.
Of the several photographs, an early one (clearly posed) shows Lhevinne in her studio carefully looking on at her student:
There's a little more spontaneity in these two shots photographed after concerts:
There are also a number of documents. Apparently Lhevinne had all her students compile lists of works to be studied in the forthcoming season. Though we have many lists for some students (attesting to many years of study with Lhevinne), there is only one list for Van Cliburn:
Perhaps the only surprise on this list is the Toccata in E minor by Bach. The remainder are all romantic works, or classical works which can be played as romantic — nearly all of which are famous recital pieces.
There are a handful of letters from Cliburn to his teacher, most of them very appreciative. Here's the first page of one from 1953:
Just two years later, Cliburn addresses Lhevinne with greater affection:
Rildia Bee Cliburn took great interest in her son's education. She also appears to have become a friend of Rosina Lhevinne as well:
Although only a glimpse, these documents show how archival collections can involve numerous people, which underscores the relatedness and greater context they provide. In this case, they also can serve as a memorial to one of the most important American pianists of the 20th century.