The charismatic player who won the musical cold war loses his fight with cancer aged 78.

His first-place at the 1958 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow rocketed Van Cliburn to overnight fame and fortune, although his subsequent career was short-lived. His publicist, Mary Lou Falcone, confirmed his death at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, which he shared with his partner Thomas L. Smith.

Cliburn was a talented, romantic pianist with a powerful technique and a particularly wide hand-span. Sviatoslav Richter, a juror for the competition, described him as “a genius” – rare praise indeed. His subsequent career, however, failed to take off and his youthful talent was considered not to mature sufficiently. His appearances tailed off during the 1960s and he officially retired in 1978, only to make a half-hearted return in 1989.

Cliburn was a mere 23-years-old when he won the gold medal at the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. His success was promoted by the American media as a triumph over the Soviet Union at a time of global tension. New York gave him a tickertape parade on his return with Mayor Robert F. Wagner declaiming it as “a dramatic testimonial to American culture” and that “with...

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