His publicist, Mary Lou Falcone, confirmed the death, saying that Mr. Cliburn had been treated for bone cancer and that he died at his home, which he shared with Thomas L. Smith, who survives him.
Mr. Cliburn, a Texan, was a lanky 23-year-old when he clinched the gold medal in the inaugural year of the Tchaikovsky competition, and the feat, in Moscow, was viewed as an American triumph over the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. He became a cultural celebrity of pop-star dimensions and brought overdue attention to the musical assets of his native land.
When Mr. Cliburn returned to New York, he was given a ticker-tape parade in Lower Manhattan, which offered the sight of about 100,000 people lining the streets and cheering a classical musician. In a ceremony at City Hall, Mayor Robert F. Wagner proclaimed that Mr. Cliburn's accomplishment was "a dramatic testimonial to American culture" and that "with his two hands, Van Cliburn struck a chord which has resounded around the world, raising our prestige with artists and music lovers everywhere."
Even before his Moscow victory, the Juilliard-trained Mr. Cliburn was a notable up-and-coming pianist. He won the Leventritt Foundation Award in 1954, which earned him debuts with five major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos. For that performance, at Carnegie Hall in November 1954, he performed the work that would become his signature piece, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concert No. 1, garnering enthusiastic reviews and a contract with Columbia Artists.
At the time, America had produced an exceptional generation of pianists besides Mr. Cliburn who were all in promising stages of their own careers, among them Leon Fleisher, Byron Janis, Gary Graffman and Eugene Istomin. But the Tchaikovsky competition came at a historically important time: a period when American morale had been badly shaken by the Soviet Union's launching of the world's first orbiting satellite, the Sputnik, in 1957.
The impact of Mr. Cliburn's victory was further enhanced by a series of vivid articles written for The New York Times by Max Frankel, then a foreign correspondent based in Moscow and later an executive editor of the paper. The reports of Mr. Cliburn's progress prevailing during the early rounds, making it to the finals and becoming the darling of the Russian people, who embraced him in the streets and flooded him with fan mail and flowers created national anticipation as he went into the finals.
In his 1999 memoir, "The Times of My Life," Mr. Frankel recalled his coverage of Mr. Cliburn's triumph in Moscow: "The Soviet public celebrated Cliburn not only for his artistry but for his nationality; affection for him was a safe expression of affection for America. My account of his rapturous reception landed on the front page of The Times two days before the pianist was crowned the contest winner because I posed the obvious question of whether the Soviet authorities would let an American beat out the finest Russian contestants. We now know that Khrushchev" Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet premier "personally approved Cliburn's victory, making Van a hero at home and a symbol of a new maturity in relations between the two societies."
Mr. Cliburn was at first oblivious to the political ramifications of the Tchaikovsky prize.
"Oh, I never thought about all that," Mr. Cliburn recalled in 2008 in an interview with The Times. "I was just so involved with the sweet and friendly people who were so passionate about music." The Russians, he added, "reminded me of Texans."
The interview was conducted in conjunction with 50th-anniversary celebrations of the Moscow competition. The festivities, sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation, included a gala dinner at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth for 1,000 guests, among them the Russian minister of culture and the Russian ambassador to the United States, who led a long round of toasts.