Soviet Love Songs: Cliburn x Khrushchev


In 1958, at the age of 23, Texan pianist Van Cliburn won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow with his own arrangement of the beloved song “Moscow Nights.” Throughout his career, Cliburn continued to return to the Soviet Union for many televised performances and developed a lasting relationship with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. On this episode of cultureXchange, we speak with Maggie Estes, director of communication and digital content at the Cliburn Foundation on Cliburn’s legacy and how music plays a role in cultural diplomacy.


Episode Transcript

Hello and welcome to cultureXchanges, a podcast at the intersection of the humanities and cultural diplomacy. I’m your host Terry Harvey, Vice President of the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy. This podcast series explores the impact of the arts and culture on diplomatic relations across the world through discussions with cultural diplomacy experts. 

The topic for today’s podcast episode is Van Cliburn and his contribution to cultural diplomacy. Van Cliburn was a Texan pianist who, in 1958, won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow with his own arrangement of the beloved song “Moscow Nights.” This came at a time of turbulent relations between the United States and Russia and the pianist’s art was able to transcend tension and contribute to diplomacy. The esteemed pianist was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush as well as the Order for Friendship by Vladimir Putin, the highest civilian award in each country. To discuss Cliburn’s legacy, we are joined by Ms. Maggie Estes, the director of communications and digital content at the Cliburn Foundation, which is a non-profit organization with the goal of promoting classical piano music throughout the world.

TK Harvey – Hi, and welcome. Thanks for joining our program. We are joined here by Maggie Estes with the Van Clyburn organization out in Fort Worth, TX. We’re really eager to dive further into his legacy and the great work that they’re doing these days. First, I’d like to give our audience a brief overview about Van Cliburn and the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

Maggie Estes – Sure! So, at the height of the Cold War in 1958, the Russians were holding the very first international Tchaikovsky competition. that was put in place, it was right after Sputnik, obviously, tensions were very high between the two countries and worldwide, and it was put in place really to showcase the superiority of Russians in classical music, and Soviets in classical music. And so, Van Clyburn was American, he was studying Juilliard. He was from Texas, born in Shreveport, LA, but grew up in Texas. And was already recognized as one of the greatest pianists, you know, was a sort of rising star in classical music, classical piano. and his teacher encouraged him to apply for the Tchaikovsky competition. He was accepted, he was helped to get there, obviously, that was a complicated thing at the time, and he went and competed. And what happened was something that was really for the history books.

He touched the hearts of the Russian people, and I think that’s really important because they saw him. He was wonderful, he was charming, he was kind, and he had a real heart, heart to heart connection with the people that were there at the competition and really all throughout Russia. He also really impressed the judges. He made a huge impact, obviously, with his piano playing, and they found him to be the best. And obviously that wasn’t what was intended by the competition. And so, the story is that they actually that the organizers of the competition actually went to Khrushchev and asked if they could give the first prize to an American. And he says, “is he the best?” And they said yes, and he said, “well give him the prize.” So that’s the beginning of his story as one of the greatest and we, we believe one of the greatest cultural diplomats at the U.S. has ever known.

TK Harvey – What year was that?

Maggie Estes – It was in 1958.

TK Harvey – Wow, that’s incredible. You had mentioned a little bit on the impact of the, of the people of the Soviet Union. They obviously kind of adored him, were surprised by him. I wonder what sort of impact it had on U.S.-Soviet relations at the time. Again, this is during the Cold War, so it’s really fascinating.

Maggie Estes – Yeah, it was truly at the height of the Cold War. And so really, I mean, at the time and then throughout his life he was like I said, a cultural ambassador. When he came back from Russia, he was treated with obviously, I mean massive fanfare, so throughout the United States. What happened first was he was given a ticker tape parade in New York City, was the only, is the only musician to ever have had that honor. People came out in droves. Time magazine had him on the cover as the Texan who conquered Russia. And then that went on to in his career you know, sold out concert tours, the first platinum record, the first Grammy from classical music, you know, all these accolades you can imagine. But as you say, I mean the tensions between Russia and the United States for that time period at a heightened state. And he really served as an example of an American to the Russian people. They truly fell in love with him, and that love lasted for his entire lifetime. He went back to Moscow in 2011 for the Tchaikovsky competition that happened that year. And I mean couldn’t walk through the streets, the public banyan, and you know walking through the streets could be fruit and flowers and couldn’t believe they got to see him in person.

So as far as how that actually affected Cold War relations, I mean, I think that’s one for historians, but I think it’s definitely true that he made such a massive impact because of his love for the Russian people and how he came back to the U.S. also and was talking about how warm they were. There’s a very famous line and I won’t do justice, but they asked him, the very first thing again, he’s 23 years old, so keep that in mind too, right the competition that he had and how poised he was talking about it and charming with this drawl and you know I sort of one-of-a-kind look too. So, he came back, and they asked, you know, “how did you find that Russian people?” And he compared them to Texans because of how warm they were and how frank they were with people. So, I think on a very sort of top level you can see how just—and remember at the time it wasn’t, obviously the Internet, wasn’t in existence—so, he was in Russia, a different example of who Americans were. Right. And I think that that’s very important.

TK Harvey – Yeah, and at a time when the countries really weren’t doing a great deal of cultural exchange. Right. And for him to go there and you text it in of all places, right, like Middle America going to Soviet Union and winning the hearts and minds of Soviet audiences.

Maggie Estes – That’s exactly right. And he, you know, and again, it was a different picture for them. In a different voice, in a different kindness and warmth than they would have thought from Americans. But again, coming back and talking about the Russian people to the U.S. was equally as important. And then throughout his life, he was a symbol of that. I mean, he went and played, When Gorbachev came to the White House with Reagan, you know, Van was invited to play that very, very important meeting and, played this concert and then also played “Moscow Nights” and sang along and Gorbachev the singing along and it was just this really special moment because of who van was the person who was an artist.

TK Harvey – Really just an amazing example of soft power diplomacy in the middle 20th century. You know, many would argue that the competition was very deliberate and demonstrated Soviet cultural superiority during the Cold War. Obviously, it’s quite remarkable that American pianist won the competition. I guess, is there any evidence of how the Soviet government responded to this? Obviously, Khrushchev endorsed his winning of the competition. They, of course, hosted him many times after that, but I wonder if there are any things to point to in the way that it really did shape the way the Soviet Union approached American culture.

Maggie Estes – As you all know, I mean there were, you know there’s history of jazz scores and I think obviously in classical music Van is sort of the supreme example of that exchange. And you’re right he did have a lasting relationship With the Russians overall. and I think what’s important to know especially in, you know, the work that we’re continuing today included that musicians are, you know, first and foremost about connection between people, right. And so that’s what, you know, when we have musicians, they aren’t necessarily, they’re not representing their government. I think it’s important to know that all these musicians like Van came from different backgrounds, but that music is sort of this, it transcends, it transcends any kind of boundaries that we can have. And so, we as an organization are so fortunate to be based on that very true fact. And so as far as you know, his mean he did go back, he wanted, you know, he was given the Medal of Friendship by the Russian government. And so that relationship did fully continue throughout his lifetime.

TK Harvey – You know, I guess you could argue, you know, him having won it so early in the 20th century that, you know, Benny Goodman later traveled there in 1963 and did amazing jazz tours. So perhaps Van Cliburn may have opened or cracked that door a bit for the Soviet government to then say, “OK, let’s do some cultural exchange programming.”

Maggie Estes – I think so.

TK Harvey – Van Cliburn was a pioneer.

Maggie Estes – Yeah, and you know, I think what’s interesting about that is, you know, Van was a classical musician. And I mean the Russian tradition of classical music is, I mean it’s just taught, right. And so, when you look at composers and you look at the musicians of the past and so. Right, like you said before with the contest. But then having Van come in as a classical musician, which was something that they owned in their minds, right? And so, then you have jazz coming in as a very American art form. I think that there’s definitely validity to saying that.

TK Harvey – Yeah, maybe shifting gears a little bit about impact and in the U.S., right? You had mentioned that he came back, probably had warm stories of hospitality of the Russian people, and his experiences there, how he was beloved. I imagine this award started great interest from people in the United States and perhaps added a boost to other American pianist to continue their work. I wonder if you could speak to that.

Maggie Estes – Sure, 100%. I mean, it was a very singular moment, I think for classical music in the United States. Because obviously of the story, and we’re talking about Russian-U.S. relations, but what it did was propel classical music to this totally new level. When you’ve got, again, you’ve got him selling records at a rate that had never been seen in classical music history, for sure. First platinum and then triple. Eventually when that became a thing, triple platinum album. The concert ticket sales, I mean it just everything across the board. Yeah, I mean I think he did so much for classical music and then you have just four years later the Van Cliburn International Piano competition started and so and quickly became one of the, you know, there weren’t a lot of international piano competitions at the time. Quickly became one of the tops in the world and now there are, you know, thousands of international piano competitions. It’s still considered one of the top three internationally. So yeah, I mean his legacy is massive at the time definitely for playing classical music to sort of an everyday household thing that people talked about which, you know, necessarily, had not been the case before then. You now have this this huge legacy going forward of an America, very American institution that’s operating at high level and launching the careers of pianists, not just in the U.S. but literally from all over the world.

TK Harvey – Yeah, it’s again just the tremendous story of how cultural diplomacy has served. Diplomatic role between two countries. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the relationship between the arts and diplomacy. You know, in his case he was kind of, you know, maybe the first to do this in the Soviet Union. And gosh, since then the State Department and other private sector partners have done this for years on end. I wonder if you could speak to the relationship between arts and diplomacy a bit.

Maggie Estes – Sure. And like we discussed earlier, I mean I think when you get to the core of music and classical music, I think in particular what musicians are looking for composers, you know, they’ve got genius works with my extraordinary human beings, right, that are able to use music to communicate things you can’t do with words. and not just because of language barriers, but because of the lack of being able to express that. And so, when you look at musicians, you’re also extraordinary human beings with this masterwork, it’s about the connection between people. And so obviously that extends to the relationship with people from all over the world.

So, since the relationship of people over the world, and so you have artists collaborating, artists playing in different countries. And obviously the world has become, with technology has become smaller, right? We’re able to connect. You’ve got also artists studying, you know, from Asia, studying in Europe or the U.S., from Russia studying, you know. So, there’s this huge international music community of people who know each other. But again, they’re not necessarily representing their countries, but we do know where they came from. And yet they all found this sort of path towards classical music and this passion for connecting with people through it, regardless of nationality. So of course, that goes a long way, I think, in creating sort of an international. Cooperation especially when things are more difficult even when they’re not.

TK Harvey – The next question is kind of in line with that. I mean I feel as you said, music does transcend all language barriers because specifically symphonic music, classical music, right, because there are no vocals and many, many scholars, and musicians in the field study the early history of classical music. So, it’s. This sort of shared history together. I wonder if you could speak more specifically about how classical music plays such a vital role in cultural diplomacy.

Maggie Estes – Sure, you’re right. I mean, there are no words. It’s really, you’re communicating through music, and it’s something that can’t be defined. It’s like you can’t define what it takes to be a great artist, you know? And obviously we run. Competition. And so, we both think we’re defining that. It’s not bad. I mean the technical skill obviously is a foundation, but it’s about the person and how they’re communicating with other people. And so, I think because of that and because you have great tradition, obviously it’s a Western art form, but you know, you have great tradition now. Plus, music is huge in Asia and China, in particular, South Korea and Japan. And so, you know, you’re seeing this happen. I mean, you know, and then obviously like you say in the U.S. with Van, what happened, you know, so I think classical music has a very specific place in that world because it belongs to everybody. And there’s again, no language barrier to it. It’s about emotion and it’s about communication purely through musical notes.

TK Harvey – Yeah, in a way, if you could read music, you can join the experience, which is really inclusive. Yeah, it doesn’t really limit the participants in any way, so it’s really quite powerful.

Maggie Estes – Cliché to say that music is an international language or, you know, whatever the international language, but it really is, you know.

TK Harvey – It’s quite powerful. Would love to spend some time on the Cliburn International Piano competition. I think this is an excellent example of your ability to sort of keep his legacy alive and there’s a huge cultural diplomacy element to that come under if you can give our audience an overview of the competition and really how it serves to celebrate Cliburn’s legacy.

Maggie Estes – Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, as I mentioned earlier, the Cliburn started in 1962 with the 1st edition and we are about to produce the 16th edition of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2022, so that’s coming up right around the corner. Over the years, you know, like I said it, it quickly became one of the most important competitions in the world. So, we have a dual mandate with competition. One is spreading classical music to as many people as possible. The second is supporting artists in their careers. The second is extremely important towards our sort of our, our worldwide, you know, position. Because artists want to come to the Cliburn because we do stand by them. They get a concert, obviously there are cash prizes, but they get concerts for it and that is the biggest prize as well as a lot of support into their careers. Obviously overtime has become a very different thing, right? So, we’ve gone to, you know, from just concert tours or maybe some press relations, you know, and media training and things like that to a very extensive, you know, program of helping them even with financial planning, tax planning, and etiquette and you know, social media and all these things that. As the world has progressed in, technology has progressed to become more and more important.

So, people want to come to the Cliburn to compete because they want to become part of the family and they want the support that we’re able to provide in a unique way. When you win the Cliburn competition, you know you immediately have a concert tour. There’s a lot of concert dates in the U.S., which is important, but also internationally, that’s our dual mandate. We do attract the very best pianists from all over the world. So, you have this extremely high level of performance and also, like we talked about earlier, different perspectives and music. It’s just a fascinating and really exciting celebration of classical music every four years that’s intentional because we want to spend time with our winners to be able to build their careers before we have another addition, have new winners. But the international quality of what we do is so phenomenal. I mean, if you look at even the past several climbing competitions, in 2005 we had a Russian gold medalist. In 2009 we have two gold medalists, one from China, one from Japan, in 2013 Ukrainian gold medals, our first Ukrainian gold medalist, and 2017 our very first South Korean gold medalist.

So, when you look at that and you can, you know it’s just it’s a testament to you and these are all people that we remain extremely close to, we remain supportive of their careers. Because we look at this as you know, without, without any attention paid. When we’re looking at artists and when our jury is, you know, is determining who should win, should move on, who should win, you know, they’re looking at it by only by their artistry and not by nationality, not by gender, not by ethnicity. It’s really, it’s a process that’s by music but that is made more special because we have people from so many different backgrounds here with us and enjoying, you know, enjoying each other and enjoying the atmosphere.

TK Harvey – Yeah, in a way, I mean the competition itself, you know, bodies, all sorts of goals across cultural diplomacy got these people from all over the world competing for this prize and every four years, I imagine, does build up the intensity of this competition. You know, I’d love for you to talk a little bit about, you know, just how many people compete for this. I mean it’s really quite large, right? How many folks do you get?

Maggie Estes – It is. So, you know, this last time we saw a substantial rise in applications to 388 applications and I think 50 countries. It’s really international to the extreme and would you also have to consider in those 388 applications the application is hard, it’s been you know it’s been compared to like a visa application you know I mean they’ve got to really be ready. And our competition is also considered as far as like the repertoire that they perform, to be one of the hardest in the world because of the amount of charges about it ends up being if they go through the finals, about four hours of music that they have to be ready to play at that kind of level. And so, yeah, 388 applications for people who are extraordinary pianists and then. You know, that comes down and then we end up, we had some live screening auditions because a live audition they, they submit videos which are reviewed by, you know, a couple of different panels of experts that we bring in to select the live auditions. And the live auditions are very important because you want to see how someone actually performs in real life, right, in a concert. All reacts to the audience, reacts to the instrument, the hall itself, you know, and so we brought 72 in for that this last March and then now we’ve narrowed it down to 30 that are coming back in June.

TK Harvey – It’s incredible. Yeah. I do not envy the jury selection process.

Maggie Estes – Yeah, I mean we also mean I think one of the more important things in the goes to that first part of our mandate is you know spreading classical music, creating classical music around the world and the Clyburn was that was a pioneer in webcasting that started in 2001. And I think we can all remember what the Internet was like in 2001 and they were the first to livestream a music competition and so we continue to build on that tradition. It’s one of the most important things that we do because it provides such a huge platform for all 30 of the competitors that are there, you know, obviously for the medalist, but really, it’s a showcase and so you know, we’re expecting at least 10 million views if not more over the course of the three weeks that will be live in June. It continues to build both exposure wise and audience wise, but also artistically.

So, it’s a show that we produce. I mean the, the, the main focus is on the performances and on the artists and their playing, but we also develop programming. Around that, so that it’s drawing in new people to classical music, right? So, like we’re showing the personalities in the history of the performers because it’s easier to connect with people now if and always has been. But if you think you know them a little better, you get to know them a little bit or show them behind the scenes of the Cliburn so that they understand you know what’s going on the ground, that they can’t be here with us in person, so. That level of exposure is also another reason that, you know, we do have these really the greatest pianists of that age coming here.

TK Harvey – Incredible, and you can imagine Cliburn was just so proud of where this competition evolved over the years and with his passing in 2013, I wonder if you could speak to really what his role was during the competitions. I imagine the other pianists were starstruck with his presence.

Maggie Estes – You know what I’ve always found fascinating, you know, he was 23 when he won the Tchaikovsky, so he’s 27 years old, I mean obviously he had massive fame at that point too, but 27 years old with a piano competition named after him, I’ve always found that to be so fascinating. You know, and that first competition, you know, the first couple, they were his age, who were, you know, we do 18 to 30 years old, and so, he was the same age as me and I just can’t even imagine what that would have been like. But no, he was involved throughout the course of his life. He was never running the competition; he never was an administrator. He was just so supportive. He had such a passion and compassion for young artists, even from the time he was still very young and in his own right and you know with the competition, and you know that helping us, you know, helping competition as a spokesperson or just as a presence. He attended the competitions; he would give out the medals. You know, he would then be at the awards ceremony. And it did make it a very special moment for those pianists. I mean, one, Van Cliburn is in the room when you’re playing, but also Van Cliburn is giving you this gold medal and it was so meaningful.

I’ve heard so many stories from them because then the medalist did. You know, a lot of them really got to know him personally over the years, and most of them I would even say the gold medalists you hear stories from, I mean especially from the Russian gold medalist that we’ve had or from other, you know, former Soviet countries. And it was so deeply meaningful, they felt such a massive connection. I mean he was their hero, you know, or, you know, even outside of that people that grew up always thrown up listening to advanced recordings and so then I mean and that was one of their biggest inspirations even as children, it was a huge impact. He was just such a wonderful man and was able to connect very personally with anyone. I mean if you were in the room with Van Cliburn and he’s talking to you, you’re the only person in that room. It was just such—I don’t know, I mean it was just, even, you know, in his later years and just that any kind of occasion you’re going who he is as a person is a star, you know, but in the humblest and you know, indirect kind of way.

TK Harvey – Yeah, I imagine very impactful on that personal level to other pianists, perhaps his contemporaries just aiming to advance in their respective careers and truly an American icon. Right. And a cultural ambassador with tremendous legacy. So, we have enjoyed this, this discussion so much and I want to thank you, but I thought we could. End with an update on where the competition is now and how people can get engaged in the process?

Maggie Estes – Absolutely. I mean, you know, we’re June 2nd through 18th. This year is the 16th edition. We’re extremely excited about it for a lot of reasons. We know that it will be an international celebration of classical music and of these artists. That it’s always been each year takes on new meaning. Obviously, we’re coming out of a pandemic, so we are a year postponed. It’s been five years since the last time we were in a competition and so for that reason alone and then many others, we are just looking forward to being a celebration. So, we encourage people, come to Fort Worth. It’s the best environment. I can’t explain the energy that happens in Fort Worth that takes over the whole city. And so, there’s just a celebration of, again, people from all over the world. But also, the webcast will be available on lots of platforms, including our website, and on our YouTube channel and then many others. It’s so fun because you can watch every moment. You don’t have to watch it live. Watch it later, you know, but you watch every moment. Become a fan of an artist, cheer for them, see how they do, you know. And then and then the great thing is after that you can follow, you know, follow their careers, and see what happens after. It’s really, it’s really something special.

TK Harvey – Well, it’s fascinating stuff and really have enjoyed the conversation. Learn about Mr. Cliburn. his role as a cultural diplomat his legacy and really where you’re taking that how far you’ve taken that in in recent years so thank you so much Maggie, I want to encourage our audience members to learn more, find them online engage with them through virtually or take a trip to Fort Worth and enjoy it in person, so thanks again.

Maggie Estes – Thank you.

Thank you for joining us today on cultureXchanges, a podcast that examines the impact of cultural diplomacy, in its many forms, on global relations. We’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this podcast, our guest on this episode for taking the time to share their expertise, our podcast editor Ed Bishop, and our listeners for taking the time to engage in the world of cultural diplomacy.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this web page do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.