Nigel Cliff is the author of Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story--How One Man and his Piano Transformed the Cold War, now available in paperback. His other books include The Last Crusade and a translation of Marco Polo's Travels. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Times and The Economist, and he lives in London.
Q: Why did you decide to write about Van Cliburn and the 1958 piano competition in Moscow?
A: I couldn’t resist it; the story grabbed hold of me from the moment I came across it. For one thing, it’s so deliciously improbable. A young Texan pianist on his first overseas trip conquers Cold War Moscow, returns home to rock-star fame, and becomes an unofficial ambassador between hostile superpowers.
I wanted to write about the Cold War, and here was a way to put a human face on a rather ponderous subject. Van Cliburn is a touching and unusual character who saw no difficulty in being friends with Soviet and American leaders and was a hero to people on both sides of the divide; crucially, that gave me an entrée into everyday lives as well as intimate glimpses of the political elites.
A good story needs to put its hero in danger, and its writer, too. Finding the language to describe a piano concerto to non-specialists, like myself, was my biggest challenge.
Yet the deeper I went, the more I found myself on familiar ground. I like writing about the unpredictable—the comedy of life in the broadest sense.
Each of my books has featured characters who are thrust on a world stage they haven’t sought: the actors in my first book The Shakespeare Riots, the explorers Vasco da Gama and Marco Polo, or in this case an unworldly, overgrown kid who becomes the most unlikely Cold War celebrity.
All leave their native society for an alien culture, where they either discover a great deal about themselves and the world they came from or conspicuously fail to do so. Van’s upset victory in the Tchaikovsky Competition challenges him to ask who he is and what he stands for: to reach deep down and discover if he can live up to the moment.
Like the feuding actors in The Shakespeare Riots, who indirectly cause the deaths of 30 people, Van also reminds us that art and artists don’t exist in a protective bubble: that all art is political, albeit rarely in such a spectacular way.
I’m certainly not suggesting that there was some kind of cosmic connection between Van and the great events of the time, though to him it must have felt just like that – or, when things went wrong, like a cosmic collision. On the contrary, the book is a character study of a tender young artist caught amid forces that first exalt and then nearly destroy him.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: I began by listening to Van’s recordings and watching his videos, and I kept returning to them to remind myself of the essential simplicity at the heart of the story.
What first struck me, even on film, was the immensely touching way Van had of seemingly baring his soul at the piano. It’s riveting now, and it must have been spellbinding to Soviet audiences unused to seeing Americans like this.
As I began working in archives in Russia and the U.S. and interviewing everyone I could in both countries, the story inevitably became more complex and layered. Van was not always what he seemed: the squeaky-clean Southern Baptist and mama’s boy was also a closeted gay man who developed a drinking problem and was watched by both the FBI and the KGB.
So he was human after all, you might say; yet what surprised me most, and took the story in a different direction, was the unexpectedly high price he paid for his youthful victory and fame.
The other extraordinary discovery was the bottomless well of love that countless Russians harbored for Van – and still do. The mountains of fan mail contain some heartbreaking items: one Russian fan sent him a delicate love letter every few weeks for most of her life.
That encouraged me to give full voice to the sheer extravagant unlikeliness of it all, and the stunned euphoria that greeted Van’s victory in the U.S. and USSR alike. If there’s one thing you learn from studying in the archives, it’s that history only seems inevitable in retrospect; at the time, no one ever really has a clue what’s going to happen.
Q: How significant was the piano competition in the Cold War context, and what impact do you think it had on U.S.-Soviet relations at the time?
A: The first Tchaikovsky Competition was a rather obscure event till news spread that Van might win; it certainly was not discussed internationally at anywhere near world-leader level, despite the conspiracy theories spread by jealous rivals that Van’s victory was some kind of unprecedented Kremlin-White House stitch-up.
Like everything else in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, though, the competition was political, in the sense that it was intended to showcase the brilliance of Soviet musicians. As much as the fact that Van played best, it was the fact that the Soviets let him win that stunned the world.
The result boosted Americans, who were terrified that the Soviets were outstripping them in technology after the previous year’s launch of Sputnik, the first satellite. It gave Russians an American who loved them and whom they could safely love, which softened feelings toward the capitalist enemy. And it made Khrushchev look human for the first time.
It certainly didn’t have a direct impact on the progress of the Cold War, but it undoubtedly changed the temperature of U.S.- Soviet relations. The glow persisted for years, through Van’s repeated visits to the Soviet Union and all the way to 1987, when he came out of retirement to play a stunning role in the decisive Reagan-Gorbachev summit.
Q: What do you see as Cliburn's legacy today?
A: As a young man handed a great opportunity and a heavy responsibility, Van stands as both an example and a warning. His response was to become a kind of missionary for classical music, playing his greatest hits to packed stadiums and screaming teens, many of whom had never listened to Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff.
Eventually he burned out from a toxic combination of excessive exposure, impossible expectations, and weak nerves. His influence has dimmed (though Vladimir Ashkenazy still rates his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 as the best he’s ever heard), and his clearest musical legacy is the quadrennial Cliburn Competition, which started in 1962 in an attempt to emulate—or rival—the Soviets.
Yet Van’s story was never just about the music. It remains the definitive instance of an artist’s ability to speak across divides of language, nationality and ideology. Today, when the concept of soft power and diplomacy in all its forms is under siege, it’s more important than ever to remember the unpredictable yet potentially spectacular dividends that people-to-people exchanges can reap.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Lots of different things – including teaching at university for the first time – that are distracting me from getting on with my next book. I’m hoping to make a start very soon.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Among the distractions, I’m currently building a robot for my son and producing a ballet with my wife. Also, I recently returned from China, where I signed a Great Wall of Books – 430 of them – in an hour. I’m wondering if there’s a record for this kind of thing.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb