Van Cliburn on stage, at church and in private life

You know how, when you are growing up, that there is always some kind of music that you want to play late at night and it drives (Will you PLEASE turn that down?!) your parents kind of crazy? Well, for my parents, the music they had to endure for most of my teen years was Artur Rubinstein playing Rachmaninoff (piano concerto No. 2, of course) and Van Cliburn's epic performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No. 1.

Yes, it did help matters that Cliburn was a Texan, and a Baptist, when one is growing up in the home of a Southern Baptist minister on the Texas Gulf Coast. It also matters that I had a friend who, week after week, made the long, long journey north into East Texas to study piano with Cliburn's mother. So I knew, secondhand, a few things about the Cliburn family and the son's struggles to break out of the glorious box created by his historic 1958 triumph in Moscow. How does a young Texas Baptist recover from a ticker-tape parade in New York City?

I say all of this for a simple reason, after reading through quite a few obituaries marking Cliburn's death, from cancer, at the age of 78. Cliburn was a very private man, yet there was more to the religious element of his life than what is shown in this stunningly blunt, rather simplistic passage in the USA Today report.

On the personal front, Cliburn was a devout Baptist but also quietly gay; in the late '90s, his longtime partner, Thomas Zaremba, unsuccessfully sued the pianist over compensation claims.

And that is that. Really?

What really matters, of course, is what the journalistic college of cardinals at The New York Times elected to say. First, there is this:

Even as a personality, Mr. Cliburn began to seem out of step. In the late 1950s this baby-faced, teetotaling, churchgoing, wholesome Texan had fit the times. But to young Americans of the late 1960s he seemed a strained, stiff representative of the demonized establishment.

Followed, later on, by a crisp summary of the pianist's brief moment in the glare of legal and social scandal:

In 1978, at 44, Mr. Cliburn announced his withdrawal from concertizing. Having earned large sums of money and invested wisely, he was a wealthy man. He moved into a magnificent home in the Fort Worth area with his mother. There he hosted frequent late-night dinner parties, his teetotaling days long behind him.

As a young man, Mr. Cliburn was briefly linked romantically with a soprano classmate from Juilliard. But even then he was living a discreet homosexual life. His discreetness was relaxed considerably in 1966 when, at 32, he met Thomas E. Zaremba, who was 19.

The details of their romantic relationship exploded into public view in 1995, when Mr. Zaremba filed a palimony suit against Mr. Cliburn seeking “multiple millions,” according to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Mr. Zaremba, who had moved to Michigan and become a funeral director, claimed that during his 17-year relationship with Mr. Cliburn he had served as a consultant and business associate, arranging promotional events and trips, managing some of the pianist’s finances, and helping to care for Mr. Cliburn’s mother, who died in 1994 at 97. The suit was eventually dismissed because Mr. Zaremba could not provide written validation of his domestic arrangement with Mr. Cliburn, as required by Texas law.

There is no attribution, of course, for many of these facts or the degree to which the sexual side of this partnership was documented.

My point is not, of course, to say that the pianist's private life is irrelevant in this context.

My journalistic point is to say that, in explaining his image and career, it also helps to note the sincerity of his faith, which was a constant in his whole life. In short, if you are reading a story about the death of Cliburn and it does not include the faith element, then you are not getting an accurate picture of his remarkable Texan.

The piece at included a few more hints about the private, and public, man:

Over the years, he lent his name to charitable causes -- and gossip columns. Chronicled were the natty navy blue suits, donations to the Baptist Church, his appearance at Madison Square Garden singing in Billy Graham’s choir, and a palimony suit against him (it was dismissed).

His Tchaikovsky Competition win spawned an event in his honor. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, held every four years since 1962, has become an integral part of the circuit.

As you would expect, the man's local newspaper devoted quite a bit of space to the death of this local legend. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram feature opened with the big-picture summary, as did so many, but with extra Texas zip:

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Van Cliburn's talent alone might have earned him a place among the 20th-century giants of his instrument, alongside classical pianists like Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz. But after a magical Moscow spring in 1958, Mr. Cliburn's fame eclipsed even those musical contemporaries, rivaling that of another young superstar of his time, Elvis Presley.

Mr. Cliburn was "The Texan Who Conquered Russia," according to a Time magazine cover. At the height of the Cold War, the lanky 23-year-old from East Texas traveled to Moscow and won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition, an event created to showcase Soviet cultural superiority. Mr. Cliburn's unlikely triumph was thus said to bring a thaw in tensions between the rival superpowers and created a mythic parable about the power of art to unite mankind.

A journalist can, when writing the hometown readers, include the kinds of details that would mean little in the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Also note that, in this story, the faith element was taken seriously and -- this is crucial -- Cliburn's own words were included in the text.

High up in this obituary, readers were reminded:

While the world mourns a cultural icon, many in North Texas remember a friend -- a shy man of uncommon graciousness.

A friend to American presidents, foreign leaders and Hollywood celebrities, Mr. Cliburn also became a fixture in the life of Fort Worth. In the 1980s, he moved from a New York City apartment to a mansion in the exclusive Fort Worth suburb of Westover Hills. In the decades since, he was often seen at local cultural events or handing out medals to winners of the prestigious Fort Worth piano competition that bears his name.

A famous night owl, Mr. Cliburn was well-known for his off-hours visits to the Ol' South Pancake House on University Drive, always dressed in his trademark dark suits. A man of deep Christian faith, he was a member at Broadway Baptist Church, sneaking into a back pew just before services began each Sunday he was in town.

"One of the most profound truths that has characterized my life is St. Paul's advice to 'pray without ceasing,'" Mr. Cliburn told Brent Beasley, his pastor at Broadway Baptist, shortly before his death. "That's how I have lived my life."

Beasley and others who spent time with Mr. Cliburn after his recent diagnosis described a man bent on reminiscing from the moment he woke up daily, but a person unafraid of the end.

"He actually made the comment, 'I'm more afraid of living than dying,'" Beasley said.

Yes, the locals would know that Broadway Baptist Church is a doctrinally progressive, culturally liberal Baptist congregation -- one that has made headlines, through the years, as it struggled to be more gay-friendly, while retaining its Baptist roots. That's valid information, in this story.

And his private life? The Star-Telegram focused on his impact on music and the world, perhaps making a journalistic choice to only print information that could be attributed to on-the-record sources.

There are simply too many amazing details in the piece to mention them all. Here is the summary that hits the big themes:

The triumph was front-page news around the globe and earned Mr. Cliburn a ticker-tape parade in New York City on his return to the United States, the only classical musician ever afforded that honor. He eventually performed for every American president from Harry S. Truman on. He began every performance by playing The Star-Spangled Banner. In 2003, Mr. Cliburn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. In 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin presented Mr. Cliburn with the Order of Friendship. In another White House ceremony in 2011, President Barack Obama presented Mr. Cliburn the National Medal of the Arts.

"He understood the role music could play in the lives of diverse people," said Robert Blocker, dean of the Yale School of Music. "He just saw music as a vehicle of hope. He lived that out, whether it was with [President] Carter or Khrushchev. I see him as being one of the world's great cultural leaders. The message he carried to presidents and to children was that music is important."

But as a classical music lover who grew up feeling weird in East Texas, here is the moment in the story that I felt truly captured the beginning of Cliburn's remarkable career and his dream of being a concert pianist. This part put a tear in my eye.

When he was 5, Mr. Cliburn's parents gave him a child's picture book of the world. When the boy came to the photograph of the colorful, onion-shaped domes of St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, he gasped.

"Take me there," he said.

Read it all.

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