Mourning a pianist, and an era
The tributes have poured forth, including from NPR, since the not unexpected news yesterday of the death of pianist Van Cliburn. We'll do our own part on WFCR with broadcasts of several of his finest performances over the next few days. Celebrated for his victory in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Cliburn enjoyed a relatively brief period in the spotlight before phasing out his concert career just 20 years after he burst onto the scene. That means that the majority of current classical concertgoers never heard Cliburn at his peak, if at all, and know him only from recordings and from the quadrennial piano competition that bears his name. Why then, do I, a member of the post-Cliburn generation, feel his loss so strongly?
Because in addition to losing a great artist, a living link to a bygone era of American classical music has also been lost — an era when a classical musician could be a household name and million-selling recording artist, could get his picture on the cover of Time magazine, and could even be a national hero. Think about it: What current American classical musician even approaches the level of celebrity Cliburn enjoyed at the beginning of his career? No, not every musician should aspire to such stature, and one should be mindful on the evident toll it took on Cliburn. And the unique circumstances of the times, when cold war tensions were combined with an appreciation for classical music that no longer exists, cannot be replicated.
But in classical music, as in other branches of the arts, a single popular figure can call attention not just to himself or herself, but also to others working in the same field. And having such a figure to brag about (as well as to cast barbs of jealousy at) is a sign that the art form matters not just to those on the inside, but to the broader culture on the outside. To paraphrase Paul Simon: Where have you gone, Van Cliburn? And when will we see your likes again?