Van Cliburn performs in Moscow in 1958 (Courtesy of Van Cliburn Foundation)
Van Cliburn performs in Moscow in 1958 (Courtesy of Van Cliburn Foundation)

Friends say faith came first for Cliburn

Van Cliburn's musical talent and success cannot be understood apart from Christian faith, friends say of the world-famous pianist and lifelong Baptist.

By Jeff Brumley

News reports of Van Cliburn’s Feb. 27 death in Fort Worth, Texas, extolled the internationally acclaimed pianist as one of history’s greatest classical musicians. Friends at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort, Worth, Texas, however, remember him as a great Baptist whose Christian faith came before his career.

Cliburn shot to fame at age 23 by winning the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition – and with it the hearts of Nikita Khrushchev and the Russian people. It was said the accomplishment did more to ease Cold War tensions than any diplomacy could.

VanCliburn Kruschev

The man who was 78 when bone cancer claimed his life is also recalled as a great humanitarian, philanthropist and friend. His generosity included a sizable donation to help Broadway Baptist Church purchase the Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn Organ, with 191 ranks and 10,655 pipes -- the largest organ in Texas -- named after Cliburn’s mother and completed in 1996.

“We have lost a giant,” said long-time friend Tom Stoker, who was the minister of music at Cliburn’s home church in Fort Worth in the 1990s. “People of this generation do not understand that Van did as much as anybody to thaw the Cold War – and he did that carrying Christ in his heart.”

‘Spiritual beacon’

Later generations may not know it, but Cliburn was an international sensation in his 20s. It was six months after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik that he arrived in Moscow for the first-ever Tchaikovsky competition. With much the same fanfare that comes today with “American Idol,” he captivated Russians and Americans alike as he won round after round.

He was met with a ticker tape parade in New York City upon his return and soon graced the cover of Time Magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”

His fame and success didn’t stop there. He performed for heads of state around the world, his concerts were sell-outs and public sightings of him reportedly caused riots. His recording of a Tchaikovsky piano concerto sold so many copies it went platinum.

Several news obituaries quote Cliburn describing classical music as “a spiritual beacon for people all over the world.”

‘A quiet person’

Those who knew Cliburn best say the similarities between the spiritual and musical was no passing metaphor for the life-long, devoted Baptist. But it’s also little known, at least publically, because Cliburn was not one to boast about matters of faith.

“When he was in town he showed up here on Sunday mornings – but not in a way that called attention to himself,” said Brent Beasley, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church.

brent beasley

“He would just slip in the back,” Beasley said. “He was a quiet person.”

Cliburn worshiped at Broadway since 1986 after moving to Fort Worth from New York City. He kept a low profile in the congregation, preferring to contribute financially to music and other ministries rather than being a performer.

VanCliburnMedalOfFredom

“When we would have a large orchestra in worship, most of our ability to do that was from Van’s generosity,” Beasley said. “He provided for a lot of classical music to have a presence in our worship.”

‘Pray without ceasing’

Stoker said Cliburn’s faith wasn’t the kind that came later in life, or even with his cancer diagnosis in August 2012. When studying at Julliard he played the organ at Calvary Baptist Church in New York – and even lived upstairs from the church in the hotel it owned.

“He prayed before every concert, and there was never a meal in Van’s house that was not blessed,” Stoker said. “He lived his life out of his faith, and he lived life large.”

Shortly after his diagnosis last summer, Cliburn told Beasley that prayer was holding him up after getting the news. “He said one of the most profound truths is … to ‘pray without ceasing – that is how I lived my life.’”

Just a day before his death, Cliburn was praying and reading scripture, Beasley said.

“He said he wasn’t afraid of death because of his faith,” Beasley said. “He jokingly said he’s more afraid of living than dying.”

Cliburn the evangelist

Cliburn learned that approach to faith growing up Baptist in Texas and Louisiana, said Al Travis, director of music ministries and organist at Broadway Baptist.

al travis

Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. in Shreveport in 1934 and moved to Kigore, Texas, with his family when he was 6. There, his father was the Sunday school superintendent at First Baptist Church and his mother the organist.

“He spoke of his gratitude for growing up the son of parents who loved each other and for being raised in the church,” Travis said. “He was grateful for the old hymns of the church .”

Cliburn’s love of music cannot be understood apart from his Baptist faith, because he saw his talent the same way he saw his money -- as temporary gifts from God, Travis added.

In that way, Travis said, Cliburn’s music and performances were his way of doing evangelism. “He had a sense of responsibility of sharing that gift with the world and thought his gift would make the world a more humane place.” 

Cliburn was also Broadway’s most famous gay member, though little was said about his private life except for a palimony lawsuit brought against him in 1996 that was eventually dismissed. In 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention revoked the church’s membership after an unprecedented investigation by SBC leaders into whether media reports about the congregation’s inclusiveness placed it in violation of a policy banning churches that "act to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior."

Funeral services for Van Cliburn will begin at 3 p.m. Sunday at Broadway Baptist Church. A public viewing will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the church.