March 8, 2013 7:27 pm

Players in a game of diplomacy

Cliburn and Gagarin were victims as well as heroes of the cold war they helped to thaw

The gangly young American Van Cliburn’s victory in the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, six months after the first Sputnik went into orbit, was more than just a pianistic event. The innocent Texan (who died last month) suddenly became one of the key players in the cold war – or a cold war anti-warrior, an American emissary in a counter-war of peace and culture. While nuclear submarines and missiles squared up to each other across the Bering Strait, Van Cliburn’s sensitive fingers became one of the prime instruments of American soft power, matching or even outdoing the Soviets at what they thought they did best.

He became, in other words, part of a diplomatic great game which was bound, in the end, to swallow and swamp his pianistic gifts. The game was played with considerable skill by both American and Soviet political machines. When the jury at the Tchaikovsky in 1958 wanted to award Cliburn the first prize, it felt it had to ask permission from the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. “If he is the best, give it to him,” Khrushchev is reported to have replied. He was either being scrupulously honest and open, or playing a blinder by seeing that the USSR would gain by granting the prize to an American – showing its lofty impartiality and adherence to artistic standards, and keeping the Tchaikovsky as the gold standard of piano competitions.

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Harry Eyres

Cliburn won not just the competition, but the hearts of a host of Russians. When he returned home, of course, he was given a ticker-tape reception and instantly inducted into the American hall of fame, an experience from which perhaps he never entirely recovered.

The Soviet equivalent of Cliburn was his exact contemporary, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. Where Cliburn was tall and shy, Gagarin, the first man in orbit, was diminutive and gregarious. He was perhaps better suited than Cliburn for the role of cultural ambassador, with his glamorous looks, his sunny smile and open personality, and travelled to Brazil, Finland, Egypt, Japan, Canada, Italy, Germany and the UK as the frontman of the Soviet space programme.

When he visited Manchester, three months after the historic Vostok flight – the first manned orbital flight in history, in 1961 – Gagarin was greeted with an enthusiasm which has perhaps never been matched in that city’s history. Crowds mobbed him in pouring rain and Gagarin insisted on standing to greet them unprotected in an open-top car. He charmed everyone, from the members of the Union of Foundry Workers (“I am still a foundryman at heart”, he told them, having worked as one before he came a cosmonaut) to the workers at the Metropolitan-Vickers plant, local schoolchildren, who bunked off school, and the astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell. His message was of science encouraging peaceful co-operation among nations.

Both Cliburn and Gagarin were men of high intelligence and self-honesty. Neither was satisfied with fame and adulation, or even top-level public relations, for their own sakes. When Gagarin was banned from space flights following the death of his friend Vladimir Komarov in the Soyuz 1 mission, whose safety Gagarin had questioned, he retrained as a fighter test pilot. It was on a flight testing a MiG 15 that Gagarin was killed in 1968, aged only 34.

Van Cliburn at least lived on to become a dignified elder statesman. He set up his own respected piano competition, and played for every American president from Truman to Obama. But in fact Cliburn’s concert career had burnt out decades before Obama was elected, when he suddenly retired from the platform in 1978. The sad truth was that he never quite matched the ardour and brilliance of his early performances; at least, some of these, with Cliburn accompanied by the superb playing of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, were committed to disc. In fact, the sternest critics said that Cliburn atrophied as an artist as his fame solidified; he never managed to extend his repertoire much beyond the great Romantic and late Romantic warhorses.

I’ve been listening to some of his early recordings, as well as the famous footage of the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov concertos he played in Moscow, and what strikes me as much as the steely-fingered brilliance is the nobility of his playing. You might expect a Texan to be showy and brash, but Cliburn is the opposite. There is something almost Olympian about his playing, above the pettiness of Earth. Perhaps that was also his limitation.

But I think we should remember Cliburn and Gagarin as Olympians of our time. Their genuine nobility of sprit was ruthlessly exploited; in some ways they were victims as well as heroes of the cold war they helped, temporarily at least, to thaw. But their achievement was inspiring and should still inspire us: they raised people’s sights above ideological divisions, towards more profound verities – the power of art to move divided hearts in unison, the human impulse to discover, in a spirit of unbiased wonder.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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