Famed Pianist Van Cliburn Dead at Age 78

By Elvira Sakmari and Deborah Ferguson
|  Tuesday, Apr 23, 2013  |  Updated 12:33 PM EDT
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World-renowned pianist Van Cliburn, who was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer in August, died today at the age of 78.

Scott Gordon, NBC 5 News

World-renowned pianist Van Cliburn, who was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer in August, died today at the age of 78.

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World-renowned pianist Van Cliburn, who was diagnosed with advanced bone cancer in August, died Wednesday at the age of 78. Cliburn died in the early morning at his home, very peacefully, surrounded by his loved ones, according to the Thompson's Harveson Cole Funeral Home.

Cliburn's funeral will be held Sunday at 3 p.m. at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.  Visitation will be Saturday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. -- though it is not yet known if that event will be open to the public.

Cliburn was a 23-year-old fresh-faced, wavy-haired kid from Texas when in 1958 -- at the height of the Cold War -- he sealed his spot in history when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

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Cliburn's performance earned him an 8-minute standing ovation and the judge's praises. Time Magazine declared him "The Texan Who Conquered Russia."

Worldwide fame, including a ticker-tape parade in New York, and full concert houses, including a performance at Carnegie Hall, followed. The recording of Cliburn's performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto sold more than three million copies and was the first classical recording to reach platinum recording status.

Harvey Lavan "Van" Cliburn was born in Shreveport, Louisiana on July 12, 1934.

Cliburn's mother was his first piano teacher. He started lessons at age 3, but it piano wasn't his first love.

"I saw my first opera when I was four, and I said, 'this is what I'm living for.' So the opera really is something very personal. I wanted to be a bass baritone and I wanted to sing at the Metropolitan Opera," Cliburn said. "I love opera but the voice is the first instrument. It must always be remembered."

His family moved to Kilgore, Texas when he was 6.

Cliburn went on to make his orchestral debut with the Houston Symphony Orchestra at age 12, and after graduating from Kilgore High School in 1951, he went on to study at the famed Julliard School in New York City at the age of 17.

After the win in Moscow Cliburn skyrocketed to fame.

He has performed for every president since Harry Truman, and for years has devoted his time to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Founded by Fort Worth music teachers in 1962, it's held every four years and now considered the world's premiere piano competition. It is a living legacy to his efforts to help young artists who shared his love of classical music.

Cliburn received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2001. In 2003 he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Barack Obama honored Cliburn with the National Medal of Arts in 2010.

Cliburn called Fort Worth home for many years. In 2009, Arch Adams Street between West 7th Street and Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth's Cultural District was renamed Van Cliburn Way.

In May 2012 Cliburn allowed Christie's in New York to auction more than 150 pieces of art, silver, furniture and jewelry. The collection fetched $4.3 million.

Cliburn managed to surprise the audience at a concert celebrating the Van Cliburn Foundation's 50th Anniversary Gold Medalists Concert at Bass Performance Hall in September. Again, he received a standing ovation.

"Never forget I love you all from the bottom of my heart, forever," to the audience before waving and exiting the stage to another standing ovation.

The 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will be held May 24-June 9, 2013.

"You know, there are only two things that are irreplaceable," Cliburn said in an NBC 5 interview this year. "And that's great music and beautiful memories."

Van Cliburn died as his home in the Fort Worth suburb of Westover Hills at the age of 78. Friends say he spent his final days at home resting comfortably and "in great spirits."  As word of his death spread, friends, fans and loved ones began sharing their memories online.  Read a sampling here or leave your own on Twitter with the hashtag #VanCliburn.

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