Classical pianist Van Cliburn, known for his triumph at a 1958 Moscow competition, died Wednesday after a battle with bone cancer. He was 78.
The musician died at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, surrounded by loved ones, his publicist and close friend Mary Lou Falcone said.
Cliburn, then 23, attained fame by winning the first edition of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, held in 1958, just six months after the Soviet Union shocked Washington by launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik.
That success led him to perform in numerous concerts all over the country and resulted in his being featured on the cover of Time magazine, which proclaimed him “The Texan Who Conquered Russia”.
His victory also showed the influence of the arts in achieving a certain unity amid a strong rivalry. Despite the tension between Moscow and Washington, Cliburn became a well-known and admired figure among the Russians.
Cliburn’s recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 along with Russian orchestra director Kirill Kondrashin became the first album of classical music to go platinum in the United States.
In 1962, prominent citizens in Fort Worth founded the Van Cliburn International Music Competition, which takes place every four years.
Cliburn performed for every US president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama.
In 2003, George W. Bush personally presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor the country bestows upon civilians.