Thursday, April 25, 2013

V - Van Cliburn


On February 27, 2013 pianist Van Cliburn died and the world mourned.

Every music teacher I had in grade (primary) school proclaimed Van Cliburn the greatest pianist ever, because of his win at the 1958 Tchaikovsky Piano competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War.

The judges didn't know what to do being obliged to ask permission of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to give first prize to an American. "Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. The judges nodded.  "Then give him the prize!"

In a statement read at Mr. Cliburn's funeral service in Ft. Worth, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, "Over the course of many years, during the most difficult historical times, the art of Van Cliburn brought together people from different countries, different continents and united them.  We shall always remember Van Cliburn as a true and sincere friend of the Russian people."

Former President George W. Bush said at the service, "Members of the presidents' club could have taken a lesson from him in diplomacy."

President Barack Obama said in a statement read at the service, "I am confident that the enduring beauty of his art will sustain his legendary status for years to come."

He played for royalty and world leaders, and was admired by the greatest of the great.

For two seasons I bought box seat tickets for the Sunday afternoon performances of the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra at the Bass Performance Hall.

Being approached by Van Cliburn, who had a box just down from mine, during an intermission of one of the early ones, haunts me to this day.

The man had obviously noticed that I was alone.

Tall and lanky, I remember the size of his hands the most.  They were enormous, with long, long fingers.

Had the ghost of Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky approached me, I wouldn't have been more shocked ... or tongue-tied when he asked how I enjoyed the performance of the Rachmaninoff C Minor concerto (the second).

The only thing I could think to say was, "Not as much as yours."

He laughed and said, "That's too kind of you.  But you know, I think she brought a real ethereal quality to the work."

I agreed, and put forth observations I cannot for the life of me recall, and he said, "Yes, yes.  You're right.  That was so charming."

I melted.  I had offered an opinion on a performance and he agreed with me.

Mr. Cliburn went out of his way to open me up and talk.  Then he drew in a quick breath and said, "I'm sorry, I'm being rude.  I'm Van Cliburn.  And you are...?"

"Rocky Hatley," I said, and the smile on my face must have looked worshipful and simultaneously stupid.  "And you certainly didn't need to introduce yourself, Mr. Cliburn."

"Your name is Rocky?  Is that your given name, or a nickname?"

"It's a nickname," I said, and explained that I was named for my father, and my parents wanted a nickname.  They had almost settled on "Sandy" when my pediatrician told my mother that he found me, two hours old, trying to stand on my hands and knees and said, "That young man is as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar."

Mr. Cliburn nodded with a wide smile.  I truly believed he was interested, "So Rocky it was.  That's a wonderful story."

And all with a Texas accent.

We spoke at a couple of more concerts, and met again at the Meyerson Symphony Center for a concert of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

"Still couldn't find anyone to join you?" he asked.

I shook my head.  "No.  I couldn't."

He smiled and patted me on the shoulder.  "You will.  Music unites the world."

Former President Bush remarked at his funeral that the people of the Soviet Union didn't find a stereotypical Texas cowboy way back in 1958 but a "gracious, humble young man, beloved even by the enemy."

I'll always remember the ghost of a legend who took the time to draw lowly me out of a shell, a man who cared about my thoughts and opinions of his beloved music ... and me.

When I heard of his death, I cried.

Now, I'm listening to his Rachmaninoff C Minor Concerto with the legendary Fritz Reiner conducting.



  1. That is a great story.

    I have the deepest respect and awe for anyone that can play the piano, especially people who can do it well.

    Even *I* knew who Van Cliburn was and what he meant to the world.

    Tim Brannan
    The Other Side and The Witch
    Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword
    The Freedom of Nonbelief

  2. What a lovely story. I always love stories that remind us that these people we look up to are human too.

    Rinelle Grey

  3. I loved this post. I have such a respect for piano players. Over the years, I have had piano lessons, but it just wasn't something I was very good at. But with that said, it doesn't keep me from appreciating others who are. Very lovely story.

  4. What a beautiful and well written memory. Thank you for sharing that with me. We as a family just bought our first piano, and Cliburn was right, music does unite us.

  5. This is a great story. What an incredible experience you had. Music could save the world if everyone would just stop and listen.

    Blogging from A to Z
    Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  6. This is a wonderful post Rocky, thank you so much for sharing it. I am not sure that I knew Van Cliburn died. I loved the remarks of the presidents at the funerals, but more than that I loved your personal story of your meetings with him. He must have sensed a quality in you that resonated with him.
    Thank you again and I hope that many more visit your post because of its value.

    Susan Scott's Soul Stuff

  7. A lovely story. :)
    A to Z April Blogging Challenge

  8. Please write this down so that your family in future years will read it. We see so many celebrities these days who are "It's all about me." And they are lionized as if they are something special. But Van Cliburn is a true star. Your background illustration is special too. I am a new follower.

  9. Lovely story. Music is a universal language. We should stop and listen more.

    Cynthia (The Sock Zone)
    a to z challenge

  10. Does anyone NOT know who Van Cliburn is? He was my entry into classical piano. And what a memorable story to treasure for the rest of your life! I agree with the above post: write this down for your family. I sometimes make the mistake thinking a blog does this, but of course it doesn't--who knows what will happen to blogs down the road. "Music unites the world." I like that. I'm a new follower.

  11. Hi nice to be here,
    Very interesting post
    Indeed music can do wonders
    The latest in this, I just read the other day
    Is it can give wonderful relief to the people
    Who suffer with back pain, a common thing
    Among the bloggers LOL
    keep blogging
    Good Wishes
    Keep in touch
    I am
    Phil @ Philipscom
    An ambassador to A to Z Challenge @ Tina's Life is Good
    And My Bio-blog

  12. Music soothes the savage beast. What a wonderful man, he'll be remember by many I'm sure. I don't know music, so actually don't know who is, enjoyed reading your post.

  13. Wow, Rocky! What a truly *amazing* story. What a blessing, for you. What a loss, for the world.
    Some Dark Romantic

  14. Hello Rocky! What a wonderful surprise it was to find your blog.

    I followed the link from the A to Z challenge and was not prepared for the personable tone of your writing. It has the quality of a conversation with a good friend and you relayed that story with so much warmth and depth I could see it in my mind's eye as I read along. I will certainly be checking out your earlier posts and hope to keep in touch after the madness of April ends.

    Happy V day!

  15. Wow! Thanks to all of you who replied! Truly I appreciate it. Those I don't yet know, I'll be seen checking out your blogs! Thanks again!

  16. That should be "soon" not "seen." See how excited I am. :-)


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