It’s always nice to learn something new about someone, even after they’ve left this world.

I can remember when pianist Van Cliburn, then a young man, won the inaugural Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, back in 1958. It was big news at the time. In the midst of the Cold War, when neighbors were building fallout shelters, the notion of an American becoming not only famous but popular in Russia seemed as unlikely as Lady Gaga becoming the next pope today. 

Cliburn could have basked in adulation, but kept a relatively low profile, avoiding grandiosity and speaking of himself as a “servant” who sought to bring beautiful music to people.

I always wondered if “Van Cliburn” was his real name, mainly because it sounded more like a last name in the vein of “Gerhard von Rad” or “James Van Allen,” and he was most commonly referred to as “Van Cliburn,” rather than just “Cliburn.” It turns out that his given name was Havey Lavan Cliburn, Jr., so I suppose “Lavan” was shortened to “Van” and he really did use it as a first name.

I don’t recall ever wondering about his faith before Cliburn died, but was gratified to learn that he was a lifelong and faithful Baptist, most recently a longtime member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and a generous contributor to music programs there.

I’m grateful for Cliburn’s contributions in many ways: we could use more quiet servants who bring beautiful music to the world.


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