Van Cliburn, the celebrated concert pianist who lived in my hometown of Fort Worth, TX, died Wednesday morning at the age of 78. When I was still in diapers, Van Cliburn took the music world by storm by capturing the first-place prize at the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow. The lanky, curly-headed pianist enraptured the Russian audience and triumphantly came home to a Wall Street ticker tape parade on May 20, 1958, the only musician to receive such an honor.
For the next 20 years, Van Cliburn would live out of a suitcase as he crisscrossed the globe, holding concerts to sold-out crowds. By the late 1970s, critics began to note that the maestro’s fingers were losing their magic. In a 2008 interview, Van Cliburn recalled that “there were a great number of concerts that people wanted. I said, ‘If I have the strength, I’ll try to do this.’ … It isn’t difficult to play the concert if you can get there and be rested. That wasn’t always the case.”
In the late eighties, Van Cliburn attempted a comeback. Reviews were mixed and a few fainting spells made the news, but audiences still showed up and honors kept pouring in. In 2003, President George W. Bush bestowed the 69-year old musician with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The next year, Van Cliburn won a Grammy lifetime achievement award.
But what ultimately defined Van Cliburn was not his music, but his character. Richard Rodzinski, who formerly ran the Van Cliburn Foundation, said that he was the picture of a Southern gentleman–“genuinely modest, self effacing, always surprised at people remembering him, appreciating him. Generosity, modesty, gentleness, incredibly loyal as a friend, great, great kindness — these were the attributes that made people so terribly fond of him.”
The life of this great musician reminds us that we will all lose our edge someday. We will get old, our minds will collect cobwebs, our joints will start creaking, our voices begin croaking. But we can still retain our character. Honesty never goes out of style, compassion is always in season and the Golden Rule, when practiced, will never lose its luster. As the 19th century newspaper editor, Horace Greeley, wrote, “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wing, and only character endures.”
Van Cliburn could have chosen to be an arrogant ass. But he opted for a better way. And even when his music faltered, his character didn’t. For that he will be honored for generations to come, not simply remembered.