Classical Music and the Cold War How Van Cliburn almost made us stop worrying about A-bombs.

Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story-How One Man and his Piano Transformed the Cold War

By Nigel Cliff (2016, Harper Collins) 464 pages with notes, bibliography, and index.

Nigel Cliff’s Moscow Nights is a vivid biography of American concert pianist Van Cliburn, whose first-place win at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow made him a Cold War hero and an icon of popular culture. When he arrived at the competition, Cliburn was a 23-year-old Juilliard graduate only beginning to establish a professional career. When he returned to New York, he received a ticker-tape parade, and his recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 ultimately became the first classical album to go platinum. In the decades following the competition, he maintained an international profile as a sought-after pianist. Aside from concert appearances, he played for numerous American state occasions, including presidential inaugurations and summit meetings. By the time of his death in 2013, Cliburn’s honors included both the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2003) and the Russian Order of Friendship (2004).

Cliff’s subtitle suggests that Cliburn played a transformative role in the Cold War. His sources do not entirely clinch this argument; that is, readers should not expect to see compelling evidence that the pianist actually had a concrete effect on world events. What Cliff does reveal is the equally interesting story of how the Cold War shaped Cliburn’s (and other classical musicians’) career and public image. One of the rewards of reading Moscow Nights is that Cliff has assembled evidence, some of it never before published, that gives us a pianist’s-eye-view of classical music during the Cold War.

U. S. newspapers gave Cliburn front-page billing: in the wake of national panic over the Sputnik launch, his win was a welcome, highly public American achievement on Soviet territory. Meanwhile, Soviets regarded Cliburn’s victory as a demonstration that the competition had been fair and unbiased. 

Cliff, for example, traces the intricate political controversies and negotiations that shaped Cliburn’s rise to stardom and subsequent career. As is already well-known to historians (and musicians and audiences who personally remember this period), Soviet and American governments used the arts to carry out international diplomacy and advance their interests. Soviet administrators designed the Tchaikovsky Competition itself to be a political triumph, hoping that it would display openness during Khrushchev’s post-Stalin thaw and raise Moscow’s profile as an international cultural center. Cliff cinematically alternates chapters about Cliburn’s story with others that narrate turning points in the Cold War, including Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s 1959 visit to the U. S. However, his account is at its most informative when he explores Cliburn’s world in finer detail. He quotes writings in which both Americans and Soviets claimed Cliburn’s victory for themselves. U. S. newspapers gave Cliburn front-page billing: in the wake of national panic over the Sputnik launch, his win was a welcome, highly public American achievement on Soviet territory. Meanwhile, Soviets regarded Cliburn’s victory as a demonstration that the competition had been fair and unbiased—an important consideration since Soviet pianists and violinists won most of the other prizes. Soviet journalists were also quick to point out that Cliburn’s teacher at Juilliard had been the expatriate Russian pianist Rosina Lhevinne.

But Cliff also looks beyond such triumphal narratives. Many of his discussions reveal that Cliburn, in fact, caused American officials considerable consternation. During the competition and the victory tour of Soviet cities that followed, Cliburn publicly expressed his fondness for Russians and Russian culture—not only when addressing his hosts but in publications that reached American readers, such as an interview for Time magazine. State Department memoranda wondered whether Cliburn had been approached by Soviet agents and worried about what statements he might make upon his return. When his flight home landed in Dallas, Cliburn faced testy questions from reporters. Cold War politics continued to impact his career after the competition. Some of this story unfolded behind closed doors. The FBI kept a file on Cliburn, for example, to which Cliff obtained access via FOIA request. Agents speculated about the pianist’s political leanings and homosexuality, and Lyndon B. Johnson personally consulted the file as he considered whether to invite Cliburn to perform at a 1963 summit. (In the end, Johnson invited him.) Other episodes were more public. For example, a letter to the editor in The Chicago Tribune urged Cliburn to cancel a Russian tour during the U-2 crisis (he did not), and the State Department expressed disapproval when Cliburn arranged to perform with a Soviet orchestra at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.

Cliff also shines when he explores the everyday business of concert pianism. He details the labor that went into Cliburn’s and other pianists’ trips to Moscow, including interactions with translators and diplomats and negotiations with competition officials about repertoire, and he recounts casual conversations among the competitors. Cliff reminds us that Cliburn was not the only musician who hoped that the Tchaikovsky Competition would boost his career: drawing on his own interviews, he tells the stories of some of Cliburn’s fellow competitors, notably Lev Vlassenko of Russia and Liu Shikun of China. Elsewhere, Cliff emphasizes that Cliburn’s career thrived not only because of his own artistry and dedication but through the efforts of a varied cast of allies: Lhevinne, Juilliard administrators, American arts patrons, concert promoters, and the pianist’s mother (and first teacher) Rildia Bee Cliburn. In Moscow Nights, Cliburn’s career takes shape not only in the isolation of the practice studio and the spotlight of the stage but within a network of mentors, colleagues, friends, and music and political professionals.

Cold War politics continued to impact Cliburn’s career after the competition. Some of this story unfolded behind closed doors. The FBI kept a file on Cliburn, for example, to which Cliff obtained access via FOIA request. Agents speculated about the pianist’s political leanings and homosexuality, and Lyndon B. Johnson personally consulted the file as he considered whether to invite Cliburn to perform at a 1963 summit. (In the end, Johnson invited him.)

Nevertheless, in its attempt to give readers glimpses of historical figures’ inner lives, Moscow Nights makes many unsubstantiated, even sensational claims. They contrast jarringly with other passages that Cliff grounds in primary sources. This tendency becomes particularly problematic in his account of Cliburn’s warm reception by Russian audiences at the Tchaikovsky Competition. Cliff interprets Cliburn’s competition performances as transcending the Soviet context—in his description, they evoked a bygone musical golden age and momentarily liberated audiences from the realities of life in a traumatized, repressed country. Cliff imagines that Cliburn’s performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 “stirred feelings latent in Russian breasts during the strict Soviet decades; memories of the golden age of Russian piano playing with its sweep and its passions, its rich gorgeousness and its forceful personality.”  During his final-round performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, “If you’d closed your eyes, though few did, you could have imagined yourself in a time before Stalin’s Terror, before Lenin himself, when, in this very building, Tchaikovsky composed and Rachmaninoff played music that echoed the greatness of the Russian soul.”  In Cliff’s portrayal, Cliburn’s performances offered transcendence not only through the pre-Soviet origin of some of his repertoire but also through its sheer emotional power and immediacy, its ability to speak directly to listeners’ hearts and convey their culture’s soul. Cliff’s language seems to suggest that these aspects of the music somehow went hand in hand.

Cliff later attributes political significance to Cliburn’s reception more directly. He claims that public enthusiasm for the pianist caused competition jurors anxiety and put them in a bind: the audience’s “mass adulation of the American pianist was so fanatical that it amounted to a provocative political statement… [For the jury] to sanction his victory was not just to admit defeat in a musical contest, but also to acknowledge a popular hunger for freedom.”

These are striking statements that purport to take us inside the ears and hearts of Cliburn’s Russian listeners and to explain what his repertoire and performance meant to them. Yet no quotations from any witnesses appear in this episode. Cliff quotes no Russian listeners who relate that Cliburn’s Liszt stirred “latent feelings” within them, for example, and he produces no officials or fans who acknowledge or even speculate that Cliburn’s reception reflected a desire for political freedom. Nor does Cliff support these statements by other means: by assuring us that he is paraphrasing first-hand accounts, by referring to historians who have drawn comparable conclusions, or even by acknowledging that he is making an interpretive leap and explaining why he believes doing so is plausible. I am not necessarily arguing that Cliff’s account cannot possibly be accurate, though I will suggest some reasons for readers to be skeptical. My larger objection is that, in the absence of any supporting evidence or argumentation, the book asks us to take such provocative claims on faith.

Moreover, this episode of Moscow Nights makes sweeping generalizations about complex, potentially elusive topics. Making sense of how audiences responded to performers and compositions means sifting through primary sources, teasing apart meanings the music took on for listeners in different contexts. It also requires us to bear in mind that listeners from the past or from cultures other than our own often heard and interpreted music in ways we might find unfamiliar or counterintuitive. Scholars of Soviet music in specific have cautioned against romanticizing particular music from this period as resistant to the regime or liberating for listeners—or, at the very least, against finding resistance or liberation without taking into account how Soviet culture and politics changed across the Cold War, probing the variety of Soviet contexts for listening to and writing about music, drawing subtle distinctions among the many ways music can take on political significance, and giving primary sources close, critical reading.

Kiril Tomoff’s recent book about Soviet classical musicians and music competitions, Virtuosi Abroad, presents a view of the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition more attentive to the organizers’ immediate goals and to the role of classical music in Soviet culture.[1] He does not attempt to reconstruct or account for audiences’ in-the-moment reactions to Cliburn. Even so, his larger argument suggests that, for at least some of Cliburn’s listeners, the Romantic repertoire he and other competitors played was not a glorious apparition from a pre-Soviet past as much as it was a glorious fixture of the Soviet present. The Tchaikovsky Competition formed one episode in a larger Soviet project to appropriate classic artworks from Western Europe and Imperial Russia and make them accessible to wide audiences—the Soviet Union could thereby present itself, in Tomoff’s words, as the “inheritor and ideal extension” of this prestigious tradition. The competition’s repertoire requirements themselves reflected this ideal by staging classics alongside more recent works by Soviet composers. Finalists, for example, had to perform a Tchaikovsky piano concerto as well as Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Rondo, Op. 59, which had been specially commissioned for the competition.

Tomoff also draws upon his archival research to show that Cliburn’s victory was never a source of controversy or anxiety among the jurors, nor was it unwelcome to officials. Instead, the violin competition was the main cause of concern: some Soviet participants and observers were slightly embarrassed (if also proud) at the extent to which Soviet performers had dominated. Cliburn’s win, Tomoff writes, was “merely part of an overwhelmingly successful international event.”

A related aspect of Moscow Nights that would benefit from more nuance is its description of Cliburn as a performer. Admittedly, I am writing this review as a musicologist and sometime pianist, whereas Nigel Cliff’s interests and background lie elsewhere: his website notes that his degrees are in English literature and that he has worked as a book and theater critic. Even so, descriptions of Cliburn’s artistry pervade Cliff’s book and play an important role in his account. Offering a better sense of what made him stand out would add needed depth and shading to Cliff’s portrait of a musician and his audiences. It would also better open readers’ ears to Cliburn’s playing. Indeed, I hope that Cliff’s book will inspire readers to listen to Cliburn’s many readily available recordings.

Other than referring vaguely to Cliburn’s “demonstrative nature … and natural nobility of expression,” Cliff does not define what he believes was “Russian” about Cliburn’s repertoire and the way he played it. Perhaps inadvertently, the book’s language might even suggest stereotypes of Russian passion. But there has never been any single, definable Russian style or spirit, in music or otherwise.

Moscow Nights repeatedly credits Cliburn with an extraordinary ability to channel Russianness and/or Romanticism. We encounter this claim early in the book. Rildia Bee Cliburn studied piano with Arthur Friedheim, a student of Anton Rubinstein and Franz Liszt, and Cliff describes her as a direct conduit from this tradition to Van: “Deep in East Texas she kept the Romantic flame burning pure and true, untainted by modern influences, and passed the torch on to her son.”  Rosina Lhevinne further cultivates Van’s affinity for Russian music and 19th-century pianism. His playing “thrilled a deep Russian chord in her” and his audition, and she taught him and her other students “the old Russian style, gently regularized to suit American tastes, which to Van was second nature.”  Cliff’s descriptions of Cliburn’s competition performances make a complementary claim. In fact, he suggests that not only Rachmaninoff’s concerto but Cliburn’s own playing conveyed the essence of Russianness: “Where did an American get to divine the subtleties of their spirit,” Cliff imagines audiences wondering, “the inmost essence of their sacred, scarred culture?”

Not only do these characterizations offer little sense of what actually distinguished Cliburn—they risk misleading the reader. Other than referring vaguely to Cliburn’s “demonstrative nature … and natural nobility of expression,” Cliff does not define what he believes was “Russian” about Cliburn’s repertoire and the way he played it. Perhaps inadvertently, the book’s language might even suggest stereotypes of Russian passion. But there has never been any single, definable Russian style or spirit, in music or otherwise. Musicologists continue to map the rich diversity of Russian music during Tchaikovsky’s 19th-century and across the 20th. This scene percolated with widely contrasting approaches to musical style and aesthetics, contentious writings about the direction of Russian music, and cosmopolitan currents that connected Russian musical culture with the rest of Europe. Questions of national identity are often crucial to the history of musical composition and performance. However, painting Russian “spirit” and style with as broad a brush as Cliff does blinds us to the variegated artistic and cultural landscape these musicians and listeners inhabited—recognizing this diversity can tell us more about what this music meant to the people who created, performed, and cherished it.

Painting Russian “spirit” and style with as broad a brush as Cliff does blinds us to the variegated artistic and cultural landscape these musicians and listeners inhabited—recognizing this diversity can tell us more about what this music meant to the people who created, performed, and cherished it.

As for Cliff’s statements about Cliburn’s Romantic pianism: Though some pianists aspire to be guardians of venerable inheritances, performance traditions and “golden ages” never endure “pure and true.” Rather, the history of piano playing is one in which approaches evolved as musicians developed their own voices—and listeners heard them—in response to role models, colleagues, rivals, and contemporary aesthetics. In fact, musicologists who study piano performance have shown that playing styles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries differed in significant, often surprising ways from those of the mid- and late 20th century. Earlier pianists generally took a freer approach to tempo fluctuation, for example, and allowed what we would consider greater liberties with the letter of the score. (Readers interested in these issues can explore recent books by Kenneth Hamilton and Neal Peres da Costa, both of which are highly readable.[2])

To his credit, Cliff does offer some insights about Cliburn’s performances that move beyond assertions of Romantic inheritance. He notes that Liu Shikun heard a quasi-improvisatory element in Cliburn’s playing (though Cliff, unfortunately, provides no direct quotations). Cliff also argues at several points that Cliburn’s appeal was not just a matter of playing style: his youthful, heart-on-sleeve charisma on and off stage charmed audiences. As I read, I found myself hoping that Cliff would develop this aspect of his book more fully: that he would use his documents and interviews to give us a higher-definition picture of what listeners heard and saw in Van Cliburn—perhaps even how listeners with different cultural, political, and professional perspectives responded to him.

By pointing out these drawbacks, I am not attempting to dissuade potential readers or to deny the many places where Cliff’s Moscow Nights presents illuminating research. For readers like myself who are interested in concert pianists, Van Cliburn and his story enrich our understanding of how classical musicians developed their careers against the backdrop of the Cold War. For those drawn to the book more out of interest in political history, Cliff shows that musicians’ stories can give us perspective on the private and public faces of this conflict. I encourage readers to enjoy Cliff’s vivid writing and rich array of sources—but also to remain aware that what the music meant for its performers, composers, and listeners is richer, more complex, and often more elusive than this particular book acknowledges.

[1] Kiril Tomoff, Virtuosi Abroad: Soviet Music and Imperial Competition during the Early Cold War, 1945-1958 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015), 89-103.

[2] Neal Peres Da Costa, Off the Record: Performing Practices in Romantic Piano Playing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Kenneth Hamilton, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Alexander Stefaniak

Alexander Stefaniak is assistant professor of musicology at Washington University in St. Louis. His research centers on 19th-century music: specifically, instrumental virtuosity, Romantic aesthetics, music criticism, and the Schumann circle. His first book, Schumann’s Virtuosity: Composition, Criticism, and Performance in Nineteenth-Century Germanyl Society, at the International Liszt Congress, and at the North American Conference on Nineteenth-Century Music. He received his PhD in 2012 from the Eastman School of Music and joined the faculty of Washington University in Saint Louis that year.

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