I could not put down Nigel Cliff s Moscow Nights the Van Cliburn Story How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, a fascinating re visiting of the pianist s life and career, set against the backdrop of the height of the Soviet United States rivalry as superpowers I loved the pacing of Cliff s storytelling, and how he alternates important chapters in Cliburn s life with important events in the Cold War Stalin s death and Khrushchev s thaw , his secret speech denouncing Stalin s cult of personality, Sputnik, Gary Powers and the shooting down of the U2 over Soviet air space, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as the relationship between various U.S presidents and the Soviets Regardless of even severe hostility between the two nations, Van Cliburn was always greeted in the Soviet Union as a native son, to the extent of arousing the suspicions of the FBI we mustn t forget that this was also the time of the Red scare Although relying heavily on Howard Reich s biography of Cliburn, Cliff also revealed many new details that I had not known Cliff gives us much details about the intrigues of the competition, about Cliburn s relationship with the other contestants, as well as how members of the jury viewed him I had also not realized Rosina Lh vinne s resentment at not having heard from Cliburn personally after he won the Tchaikovsky, and how Cliburn hadn t even offered to pay her back for all the free extra lessons she gave him before the competition To me, what was especially revealing was the pianist s friendship with Khrushchev, and how his standing with the Soviet politburo fell after Khrushchev s fall from grace, even though the Soviet and the Russian public continued to love him until his death I, and I m sure, many others, have probably wondered what kind of a musician would Van Cliburn had not won the Tchaikovsky Competition With his talent and pianistic abilities, he would have had a career as a pianist Perhaps he could have developed as a conductor, as he had already exhibited talent in that direction But he simply didn t have time to do anything else but play one concert after another, and play for one president after another I suppose Cliburn s win in Moscow had also been responsible for today s proliferation of music competition, of young musicians mindset that winning a major competition would make their career like Van Cliburn.As Cliff writes, Fame had set him up to be the greatest pianist of all, and he could not quite manage that What person could Cliburn s mother had brought him up to be a Southern gentleman, a church going, courteous, and somewhat idealistic man who believed in the power of music in bridging people Again, to quote Cliff, As the gears of international relations turned and, for a moment, clicked into place, he was delighted to play his part At the end, he remained an American icon, a symbol of greatest in the arts that the country is capable of At its best, Van Cliburn s performances should be remembered for their transcendental pianism as well as beauty of sound, a throwback to the days of Rachmaninoff and Hoffman Perhaps he saved his best and most inspired playing for his beloved Russian audience, an audience that accepted him for the artist he was Certainly he deserved to be remembered for his performances of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerti than having played Moscow Nights for Gorbachev. WOW Read this book What a writer to be able to tell Van Cliburn s story so well in such detail in such a positive fashion intermingling with all the political events surrounding the story I learned so very much about events I actually was living through with no idea what was really behind the news I was surprised how easy it was to read and how intriguing the politics were A truly worthwhile book. The story of Van Cliburn is one I ve never heard before, though as soon as I finished reading this excellent biography by Nigel Cliff, I immediately checked online and found dozens of videos of his performances and everything Cliff writes about Cliburn s ability to play is true The man really was a wonderful pianist, no matter what point in his life he was performing, and it s easy to see how he conquered the world by skillful manipulation of just 88 keys Moscow Nights is chiefly concerned with Cliburn s rise to fame and his triumph at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition, and the after effects of his triumphant success there, which lingered throughout the rest of his long life Cliff writes, with great sympathy, about Cliburn s long years of study and practice, and the ways in which his passion for Russian music overshadowed so many other areas of his life His childhood, his time at Julliard, and his many successes after the competition are all key to understanding how this gentle man became an unwitting cultural ambassador, and how the demands of diplomacy and patriotism during the Cold War were mixed up in Cliburn s simple desire to share his gift with audiences everywhere Cliburn remains a fully human figure, however Cliff doesn t shy away from relating Cliburn s foibles and flaws, and that complexity creates a stronger book.It s important to understand events in the Soviet Union leading up to the competition, such as the shift in power from Stalin to Khrushchev, in order to see why Cliburn was such a hit with the Russian people it s equally important to understand American politics in the same time period, after the successful Soviet launches of Sputnik and little Laika, and why the American government thought it was both a terrible and wonderful thing that Cliburn even wanted to compete in Moscow Cliff covers all of these topics and with a scholar s view of history, placing equal blame on the USSR and the USA for mistakes and misdeeds, but keeps the focus on how one pianist tried to make the world a better, peaceful and joyful place.Cliff also writes about the music itself in a way that distinguishes Mozart from Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky from Prokofiev, so that readers will be able to grasp each composer s appeal and style whether they re musicians themselves or simply enjoy listening to classical music This is no small feat, and Cliff deserves praise for his ability to bring life and sound to the written word I m so glad I read Moscow Nights, and I can t wait to discover of Van Cliburn s performances.I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest, unbiased review Review cross posted to. Van Cliburn s story is nothing new a talented young pianist who won the first Tchaikovsky Piano competition held in Moscow during the height of the Cold War, who then played piano for US and Soviet politicians for decades as a music ambassador, whose own music and personal development including his homosexuality were somewhat stunted by early success, societal culture and the public s curiosity I wondered what I would gain from this book, but after finishing the book I was quite touched In a sense, everyone has a role to play in the world We might not know it or might not like it, and of course we try to define our roles instead of being defined For Van Cliburn, his role was defined by his early success and he did not fight it He was a kind hearted, innocent child who went along, dutifully playing the pieces that he became known for and dutifully saying all the clich No, he did not get to fully develop himself musically, he concealed his homosexuality, he couldn t live his life exactly how he wanted it But these just made him to be one of the majority of the people in this world, who have to accept a reality that is so far from their dreams What s remarkable about Van Cliburn is that he carried himself with dignity, a sense of duty and kindness He seemed to have identified something that is larger than life Is it music, is it duty to his country, is it love or friendship or Russia Or all of the above But whatever it was, he gladly gave himself up for it He is gone, just like we all will be gone, but the music that he played will still be around and will touch the hearts of many generations to come. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time The perfect combination of music and politics , two of my biggest interests I admit a prejudice as a long time fan of Van Cliburn who was in heaven when I attended his concert at the Minneapolis Auditorium with the Minneapolis Symphony not their usually venue..indicative of his rock star status as a child.The author does a wonderful job of mixing the politics of the day, which play a major role in Cliburn s career, with the intense pressure of being a musician at the highest levels of musicianship and competition.I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed this. Really fantastic writing about the Cold War and about music It was hard to get a clear picture of Van Cliburn as a person, but he was a very private person so I guess there s not much to do about that The scene where Van plays for Gorbachev was amazing and made me cry Also this book made me feel very warmly toward Khrushchev.We constantly hear about art being a universal language, about how it brings people together, but it s sometimes hard to understand what that really means in practice It really can take just a small amount of beauty to remind people of their humanity and compassion. I loved reading some of this, as Van Cliburn was my freshman theory professor s cousin Many of the details were fascinating, encouraging, and or amazing However, I neither appreciated nor enjoyed some of the other details the author included Perhaps I m too close to the subject knowing his cousin and other family members , but I do not enjoy reading things that I know the biographee would rather not have had shared This was a posthumous biography. This is a very interesting account of the life of one of the most famous pianists of the 20th century, Van Cliburn Van Cliburn rose to international fame when he won the first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958 The author relates the early life of Cliburn in Shreveport, Louisiana, and later in Kilgore, Texas He was taught by his mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, from an early age after his musical gifts were recognized Throughout his childhood his mother exerted an enormous influence on his musical and pianistic development She herself had studied with the great Russian pianist, Arthur Friedheim, who had studied with Franz Liszt She imbued her son with a deep love of the 19th cnetury romantic piano repertoire, in particular, with an emphasis on the Russian school of piano performance In his late teens he was able to enter the Juilliard School in New York City where he studied with the famous teacher Rosina Lhevinne Being Russian she taught the grand style perfected by the teachers at the Moscow Conservatory where she studied The first Tchaikovsky competition was set up to showcase the accomplishments of Soviet pianists However, when Cliburn participated in the competition he created a sensation with the Russian audiences and judges of the jury, too, which included the great pianists Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter Even Nikita Khruschev agreed with the jury s decision to award first prize to the young, very talented American Cliburn s experience gave him a deep love of Russian music and the Russian people He made several visits over the next 30 years to tour and re establish his friendships with the many Russian friends he made during the competition His career took off at an extraordinary pace during the 1960 s when he was promoted by the famous promoter Sol Hurok who was behind the success of many other great artists Also, Cliburn was influenced by performing for and socializing with several Presidents beginning with Eisenhower He did undertake a 15 year sabbatical from performing beginnning in the mid 1970s The stress of performing at a high level and expecting to be a constant international celebrity took its toll But, he came out of retirement in the 1980s when perestroika occurred under the direction of Mikhail Gorbachev He gave a noteworthy White House recital playing for both Reagan and Gorbachev which re ignited his career He followed that event with several trips to Russia where he was still lionized 40 years after winning the Tchaikovsky competition I had the privilege of seeing Cliburn perform in 1972 at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan For several years Cliburn performed benefit concerts in July to support the arts programs at the camp I ll never forget the first rehearsal when he arrived onstage to play through Rachmaninoff s 3rd Piano Concerto, a favorite concerto of his I was playing French Horn in the orchestra The sound he could generate was simply awesome He had huge hands and could navigate the extremely difficult piano part with ease I was able to speak to him during the week and found him to be a really friendly, open person I recommend this book as a document of a great pianist and who loved both his own country and Russia and had a passionate interest in using music for promoting peaceful relations between countries. Gripping Narrative Nonfiction That Tells The Dramatic Story Of A Remarkable Young Texan Pianist, Van Cliburn, Who Played His Way Through The Wall Of Fear Built By The Cold War, Won The Hearts Of The American And Russian People, And Eased Tensions Between Two Superpowers On The Brink Of Nuclear WarIn , An Unheralded Twenty Three Year Old Piano Prodigy From Texas Named Van Cliburn Traveled To Moscow To Compete In The First International Tchaikovsky Competition The Soviets Had No Intention Of Bestowing Their Coveted Prize On An Unknown American A Russian Pianist Had Already Been Chosen To Win Yet When The Gangly Texan With The Shy Grin Took The Stage And Began To Play, He Instantly Captivated An Entire Nation The Soviet People Were Charmed By Van Cliburn S Extraordinary Talent, Passion, And Fresh Faced Innocence, But It Was His Palpable Love For The Music That Earned Their Devotion For Many, He Played Like A Russian Than Their Own Musicians As Enraptured Crowds Mobbed Cliburn S Performances, Pressure Mounted To Award Him The Competition Prize Is He The Best Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev Demanded Of The Judges In That Case Give Him The Prize Adored By Millions In The USSR, Cliburn Returned To A Thunderous Hero S Welcome In The USA And Became, For A Time, An Ambassador Of Hope For Two Dangerously Hostile Superpowers In This Thrilling, Impeccably Researched Account, Nigel Cliff Recreates The Drama And Tension Of The Cold War Era, And Brings Into Focus The Gifted Musician And Deeply Compelling Figure Whose Music Would Temporarily Bridge The Divide Between Two Dangerously Hostile Powers I met him once in Cincinnati, introduced by a musician friend who had attended Juilliard with him He was friendly and personable but a bit shy also His life was overshadowed by his mother, Rildia Bee who dominated his whole life and kept him sexually repressed Sad story all around about how she ruined his personal life and directed his friendships, even encouraged him into a gay relationship in spite of his deep Christian beliefs The parts in Russia are fascinating, and I loved his love of Russian classical Music as I am a fan of romantic music, where the Russians such as Rachmaninoff, Tschaikovsky , Rimsky Korzakoff and Borodin have no equal.
Nigel Cliff is a British historian, biographer, critic and translator He specialists in narrative nonfiction, especially in the fields of cultural history and the history of exploration.
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- 464 pages
- Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story-How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War
- Nigel Cliff
- 09 February 2019 Nigel Cliff