When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath

When the World Stopped to Listen: Van Cliburn’s Cold War Triumph and Its Aftermath
By Stuart Isacoff
Vintage Books
A review by R.C. Speck

History is filled with great moments which encapsulate the character of a particular age. Van Cliburn’s victory at the first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition is one of them. Author Stuart Isacoff in his book When the World Stopped to Listen recounts how Cliburn, a tall, affable Texan, won the hearts of the Soviet public with his impassioned playing during a time when the Cold War was at its coldest.

The year was 1958. The Soviets fielded a strong team of players at the competition and were expected to win. Cliburn, however, had such an affinity for the music of Tchaikovsky and the Russian Romantic tradition, that audiences and judges alike knew immediately that he was special. Isacoff takes us from Cliburn’s early life, to his heady days at Juilliard, to the competition, and well beyond. However, one thread that never leaves us is the love Cliburn had for the music and the people who listened to him.

Isacoff includes narratives surrounding the other competitors as well as day-to-day events of the competition. The rivalries, the scandals, and the hopes and dreams are all there. Further, he zooms out quite often to show the political ramifications of the event and argues how art can have a major impact on the world’s stage.

Juicy tidbits play a major part in the story. For example, it was really Cliburn’s sublime interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s diabolically difficult Third Piano Concerto rather than Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto which sealed the deal for him at the competition. Also, after the competition, when Cliburn’s popularity among the Russians was reaching rock-star levels, the FBI was concerned that they liked him a too much (and vice versa!). Was Cliburn becoming a security threat? Further, the well-publicized story of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s approving Cliburn’s triumph by saying, “Was he the best? Then give him the award!” is actually apocryphal. What really happened is more mundane but also more revealing about the machinations that went behind almost everything the Soviets did when interacting with Americans.

After the giddiness of the competition, Isacoff continues Van Cliburn’s story as he pursued his career. There were highs and lows, of course. But Cliburn would always be defined as the man who went into the Soviet’s backyard and beat them at their own game. But in reality, they loved his playing—and him—so much they were quite willing to be beaten. Cliburn’s victory softened the competitive edge between the United States and the Soviet Union at a time when the world needed it most, a point brought home with striking clarity in When the World Stopped to Listen.

This book review appeared in the winter 2018–19 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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