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Famed Pianist Van Cliburn Dies at 78

The American pianist rose to fame at the height of the Cold War after winning the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition

Van Cliburn, the American pianist who stunned Russian audiences at the height of the Cold War with performances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos, died Wednesday at his home in Forth Worth, Tex., after a battle with cancer.

He was 78.

“Van Cliburn was an international legend for over five decades, a great humanitarian and a brilliant musician whose light will continue to shine through his extraordinary legacy,” his publicist, Mary Lou Falcone, said in a statement to the Associated Press. “He will be missed by all who knew and admired him, and by countless people he never met."

He was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn in Shreveport, La., on July 12, 1934.

At just 23, the Julliard-educated musician — trained in Russian romanticism — traveled to Moscow in 1958 to compete in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition, which was designed to demonstrate Soviet cultural superiority. However, it was Cliburn who received an eight-minute standing ovation after performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The Tchaikovsky work would become his signature piece.

The judges awarded the American competitor first prize but first had to get the approval of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Upon returning home, the classical musician reached rock-star status, with Time magazine proclaiming him to be "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

He signed with RCA Victor the same year and his recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to go platinum. It also earned him a Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance before eventually going triple-platinum, as it was the best-selling classical album in the world for more than a decade.

Following a 10-year hiatus due to the deaths of his father and manager, he performed at the White House for President Ronald Reagan and Russian Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. In 2003, President George W. Bush awarded Cliburn the presidential Medal of Freedom and a year later, Cliburn was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Cliburn's publicist revealed his bone cancer diagnosis last August.

He is survived by his longtime companion Thomas L. Smith.