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 his two hands, Van Cliburn struck a chord which has resounded around the world, raising our prestige with artists and music lovers everywhere.” International musical superstardom followed with American audiences clamouring to hear him.

Cliburn began piano studies with his mother when he was three years old and a year later was playing in student recitals. At 13 he won a competition to perform with the Houston Symphony where he played Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto – the work that would make his name. Offered an early Juilliard scholarship, Cliburn turned it down, refusing to study with anyone other than his mother (he subsequently accepted a similar offer four years later).

He won the Leventritt award in 1954, securing a deal with Columbia records. In 1957 he was conscripted into the Army, but released two days later because he was prone to nosebleeds. A year later, the Tchaikovsky competition effectively saved his stagnating career. Moscow took the rangy Texan to their hearts. At a reception in the Kremlin, Nikita Krushchev got him in a bear-hug: “Why are you so tall?” he asked. “Because I am from Texas,” Cliburn answered.

On his return he signed a contract with RCA Victor. His first recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto sold over a million copies within the first year. His earnings went through the roof but he struggled with broadening his repertoire. Even in 1959, Howard Taubman, in The New York Times, called a performance of a Mozart concerto “almost a total disappointment.” And the Schumann concerto offered merely “sentimentality rather than Romantic sentiment.” Although he reduced his appearances over the following years, by the time of his retirement in 1978, at the age of 44, wise investments had made Cliburn a wealthy man.

His emotional life was hardly more successful. At the age of 32, he met Thomas Zaremba, who was then only 19. Initially they lived a settled life, but in 1995, Zaremba filed a multi-million palimony suit against Cliburn. The suit was eventually thrown out because Zaremba could not offer written validation of his domestic arrangements, as required by Texas law.

Cliburn made a comeback in 1987 but performances were sporadic. In 1998 he suffered a memory lapse in the final movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony, and collapsed onstage. Further health problems dogged his later years and in 2012 he was diagnosed with the bone cancer to which he eventually succumbed.

Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. was born July 12, 1934. He died on February 27, 2013, aged 78.