In 1958, when theJulliard-trained Cliburn was only 23, he became a sensation for winning a competition that was, according to The Dallas Morning News, "widely assumed to be a showcase for pianists from Russia and its satellite countries." When he came home he was a celebrity, honored with a ticker tape parade, and Time magazine put him on their cover deeming him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia." He was as much a musical symbol as an international political symbol.
Following the competition, Cliburn's recording of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 under Russian conductor Kirill Kondrashin reached platinum status, making it the first classical album to do so, the Associated Press reported. Though he decided to stop touring after 1978, Cliburn re-emerged in 1987 to play at a state dinner during Mikhail Gorbachev's visit.
Since 1962 he has had an international competition of his own: the Van Cliburn International Music Competition.
Watch him play Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1: