Van Cliburn became an international cultural hero when he won a Cold War-era piano competition in the Soviet Union and then rocketed to unheard-of stardom for a classical musician in the U.S.
Mr. Cliburn, who died Wednesday at age 78 near Fort Worth, Texas, stunned the world in 1958 when, soon after the Soviet Union had launched the first satellite in orbit, he won that country's first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competitionintended to showcase Soviet talent.
The same year, his recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album to sell more than a million copies. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and remains the only musician celebrated with a New York ticker-tape parade. The Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, for which he served as artistic adviser, became one of the world's most prestigious.
Mr. Cliburn's affection for the Soviet peopleand theirs for himwas notable during a period of superpower strain. At the 1958 competition, the Soviets were enraptured by the emotive interpretations of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff that poured from the lanky Texan, then 23 years old.
After Mr. Cliburn earned roaring ovations, the Soviet ministry of culture relayed concerns to a Communist Party official. She went to the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, according to Mr. Khrushchev's son Sergei Khrushchev, a fellow at Brown University.
"The jury says the American is the best, but ," the official began, leaving the political quandary unsaid.
"Is the American really the best?" Mr. Khrushchev asked.
He was, she replied.
"So you have to give him the prize," the premier said, according to his son.
Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. was born in Shreveport, La. His father was an oil executive and his mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, a piano teacher who had studied with a pupil of Franz Liszt. Van Cliburn began lessons at age 3, after his mother found him at the keyboard uncannily mimicking one of her students.
She taught him to coax a rich, round tone from the piano, and to sing each piece so his playing would evoke the phrasing and shadings of the human voice. "The human voice is the first instrument," he said in a 2008 interview on National Public Radio. "When we go to play on a stage before an audience, we are there as a voice. It may be the piano, but it's still a voice."
Mr. Cliburn's family moved to Kilgore, Texas, when he was 6. He debuted with the Houston Symphony at age 12. After earning his top prize in the Soviet Union, he traveled at a frenetic pace. In 1974, Mr. Cliburn's father, who was also his manager, died. In 1978 the pianist continued to perform for four more years to honor commitments, thenbegan a nine-year hiatus from the stage.
Mr. Cliburn's mother, who lived with him until her death, was perhaps his best friend, said Richard Rodzinski, former executive director of the Van Cliburn Foundation, which runs the Van Cliburn competition.
In 1996, a man with whom Mr. Cliburn had a 17-year relationship filed a "palimony" suit, seeking millions of dollars. The suit was dismissed.
Friends described Mr. Cliburn as gentle, generous, and modest. He didn't teach, but mentored young soloists. He loved to entertain visiting musicians in his Fort Worth-area home, tend his rose garden and attend the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In later years he played in public occasionally, often as benefits for organizations he supported.
In 1987, Mr. Cliburn performed at a White House summit for President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, moving the Soviet leader, his wife and delegation to sing along to a spontaneous rendition of the Russian song "Moscow Nights."
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A version of this article appeared February 28, 2013, on page A6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Pianist Became a Cold-War Hero, Media Star.