Van Cliburn’s farewell

Van Cliburn performing at the Moscow Conservatory, 1958.

Van Cliburn performing at the Moscow Conservatory, 1958. Photo from the Van Cliburn Foundation; photographer unidentified.  Note the roses on the stage.

As I write this, the telecast of the funeral just started.

Interesting times.

Older brother Dwight played piano, at least through high school.  We had a Gulbranson upright in the living room in our home on Conant Avenue in Burley, Idaho.  I suspect his high school activities and social life cut out the actual lessons, but he still played.  Especially when he was bothered by some issue — if he broke up with a girlfriend, we might be awakened sometime after midnight with Dwight’s playing.

How could anyone sleep through it?  He’d open with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.  It’s stirring especially when it bounces you out of bed at 1:00 a.m.

I don’t know for sure that Dwight was emulating Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., but it was, after all, just a year or so after Cliburn jolted the music world, and the world of the Cold War with his stunning win at the First Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, USSR — playing that Tchaikovsky piece with verve and power that brought tears to the cheeks of every Russian, except perhaps the teen girls who flocked to the competition to see the lanky Texan and treat him like a prehistoric Mick Jagger.

English: I took photo with Canon Camera.

Van Cliburn Way in Fort Worth’s Cultural District – Wikipedia image

Hidden throughout classical music we find pieces that stir our souls the way Tchaikovsky can in that concerto.  Generally these pieces stay hidden.  It takes a star like Van Cliburn at an event like the Tchaikovsky competition to make those pieces part of world culture — such big parts of world culture that kids in small potato-farming towns in southern Idaho learned the music before they learned Chubby Checker and Fats Domino.

Here in Dallas we’ve been hearing a lot of that opening snippet of the concerto, on radio and television, since Cliburn died last Wednesday.  Kathryn’s choir, the Arlington Master Chorale, got invited to provide a third of the choral force for the funeral — better than a front row seat, a choir seat, to actually take a role in the service.

You can read the history swirling around Cliburn in one of the good obituaries or remembrances  (see notes below).  His funeral today in Fort Worth, Texas, at Broadway Baptist Church, cannot be more than simply a cap to a life lived exceedingly well.  And fittingly, as he brought people of diverse and often opposing viewpoints together to agree on fine points of culture, to discover they could agree on broader points of politics, economics and morality, his funeral offers some interesting viewpoints.

  • Music makes up most of the funeral service.  Broadway Baptist’s Chancel Choir and Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn Organ were joined by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and 200 more voices from the Arlington Master Chorale and Schola Cantorum.  300 voices make this combined choir slightly smaller than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City.
  • He’s known as a pianist, but Cliburn’s love was vocal music, particularly opera.  No piano was used at the service.
  • Cliburn loved Russia from a very young age, when his mother got a photographic atlas of the world, and he took a shine to the onion-domed churches of Moscow.  The choirs got three songs to sing, in Russian.  They got the music and lyrics after noon on Saturday for a 3:00 p.m. Sunday performance.  Astonishing what good musicians can do in a language they don’t speak, in just a short period.
  • One of the Russian songs is known in English as “Moscow Nights.”  Cliburn played and sang it for Mikhail Gorbachev, at the White House, in 1980 1987.
  • Broadway Baptist was Cliburn’s home church.  True Baptist, he usually sat in the last row.
  • The daughter of Mstislav Rostropovich, Olga spoke (Olga? Elena?), bringing a note of condolence from Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Fort Worth Republican U.S. Rep. Kay Granger read the note of condolence from U.S. President Barack Obama.  Former President George Bush remembered Cliburn’s performance of the National Anthem at the first game at the Ballpark in Arlington, where the Texas Rangers play.  Gov. Perry noted Cliburn’s polishing of the reputation of Texas.  Imelda Marcos, widow of Philippines’s president (or dictator) Ferdinand Marcos, sent an enormous floral arrangement of red roses outlined in yellow roses.  Democrat or dictator, socialist to fascist, highest culture to dusty-booted cowboy, people loved Cliburn.
  • Baptists loved Cliburn for his music, for his fellowship, and for the fame and good reputation he brought to the Baptists, Fort Worth and Texas.  No one ever challenged his sexual orientation from the church, so far as is recorded.  Broadway Baptist left the Baptist General Convention in 2010 over the congregation’s stand for gay members.
  • Within the past two weeks Gov. Rick Perry expressed his hope the Boy Scouts will keep a ban against homosexuals in leadership positions.  Today he didn’t hesitate to sing praises of Van Cliburn.


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