Texas Ingenuity History


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Bach to Texas with Van Cliburn

If Bach, Beethoven or Mozart had only known about Texas, they would have packed up their harpsichords and pianofortes and headed straight to the Lone Star State. As history happened, their music had to be imported into Texas sometime after their deaths. However, even though classical and stage music wasn't invented in Texas, a number of Texans have influenced its direction in the modern world.

Music associated with the old world certainly came to Texas along with the early pioneers. Performed by individuals and small groups rather than orchestras, it wasn't until the turn of the twentieth century that cities in Texas supported local symphony orchestras. The Dallas Symphony started in 1900, Austin in 1911, Houston in 1913 and San Antonio in 1939.

Opera appeared in Texas as early as 1875 (Field's Opera House in Dallas) and an early Texas opera star from that city was Leonora Corona, born Lenore Cohron in 1900. She attended Oak Cliff High School (now W. H. Adamson) and moved to Seattle while she was still a teenager. She made her operatic debut around 1924 in Naples and sang extensively in European theaters before signing with the Bracale Opera Company and touring Havana and Puerto Rico. She sang at the Metropolitan Opera (starting in 1927) for eight seasons in Italian operas including Tosca, Aida, and Don Giovanni. She also performed at Carnegie Hall and at the Opera Comique in Paris. Another opera star grew up in San Saba in 1928. Thomas Stewart attended Baylor and Julliard. He debuted at the Met in Falstaff and also appeared in Carmen, Othello and many others.

Van Cliburn Fans

Van Cliburn, Fans

(Courtesy Van Cliburn Foundation.)


Texas spawned several musicians who influenced Broadway as well. They included two University of Texas grads, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (not the Welsh Tom Jones), who are responsible for the musical hits The Fantasticks and I Do! I Do!Joshua Logan, born in Texarkana, won a Pulitzer Prize (1950) for South Pacific. Larry King (no, not the talk show host) wrote the 1970s smash hit, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The incredible Tommy Tune, born in Wichita Falls, has won nine Tony awards (in four different categories) as a Broadway actor, dancer, singer, choreographer, and director - plus Drama Desk awards, Obie awards and a Dance Magazine Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, among several others.

However, when you include Texas and classical music in the same sentence you have to include the name Van Cliburn.

Born in 1938, in Shreveport, Louisiana, Harvey Lavan Cliburn, Jr. (shortened to Van Cliburn) came from a Lone Star family tree longer than a country mile. The booming oil business had taken his father out of the state temporarily, but they would return to Kilgore in a few short years.

Van Cliburn Tickertape

Van Cliburn, New York ticker tape parade.

(Courtesy Van Cliburn Foundation.)


While his father worked in the oil business, Van's mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, taught piano lessons. As a toddler, Van watched the succession of his mother’s students come in and out of their house with interest. He delighted to hear his mother practice and listened with intense curiosity. He also watched carefully as students learned their daily lessons. One day after his mother left the room, Van sat on the piano bench and started playing the music that the last student had been practicing. When his mother returned, she knew he had a musical talent, but was determined that he would be properly trained.

At the age of three, Van started learning piano from his mother – daily lessons without fail. And these weren’t lessons from the typical Hal Leonard Method books for young fingers. Not from Rildia Bee! His mother had studied under Arthur Friedheim, a student of the famous pianist Franz Liszt, and could have been a successful concert pianist if the door had been open for young women in that era. From his mother/teacher, Van learned how to read music, how to sit correctly, how to caress the keys, and how to interpret music. She made sure he didn’t develop any bad musical habits.

Music tutoring in the Cliburn household went beyond piano lessons. His mother and father drove Van from Kilgore to so many concerts in Dallas and Shreveport that once when asked where he lived, he said, “On highway 80.” Van played for his school choirs, community events and church functions. All the while, he took lessons from a piano teacher who told him, “While you are taking lessons from me, I am not your mother.” She demanded significant daily practice and Van, with few reservations, met her demands with enthusiasm. By the time he was in junior high school, Van stood almost his full height of 6’ 4” and his large hands gracefully and skillfully covered any reach the music required.
By the age of twelve, Van won a statewide Texas piano competition and played with the Houston Symphony. At the age of fourteen, he won a National Music Festival Award and played in Carnegie Hall. The awards kept mounting up for young Cliburn. He hurried to finish high school at the age of 16 so he could get on with a professional piano career. At 17, he entered the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York.
His mother carefully selected a teacher who could take Van to a higher level of professionalism. That teacher, Madame Rosina Lhevinne, had graduated from Moscow Conservatory with highest honors, and some consider her the most influential piano teacher of her generation. When she first met Van, she refused to take him on as a student, saying that her schedule was too full. Then she heard him play. She rearranged her schedule and Van grew into her most promising pupil. Under Lhevinne’s inspired tutelage, Van won several national competitions and gained the experience to compete internationally.

To understand the significance of what happened next, you need to know about the events of October 1957. Ever since the end of World War II, the United States and Russia (then the communist Soviet Union) had both stockpiled a large number of nuclear weapons. The fear on each side led to a “cold war” of high tension, fueled by spy versus spy intrigue and inflammatory political rhetoric. This increasing anxiety drew the “free west” and the “communist east” to the brink of mutual annihilation. By 1957, although each country had a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, the delivery of them to the enemy was a crude proposition. Each country knew that the next move was conquering space, where weapons could be dropped on the enemy from above.

All hope of a peaceful future depended on developing space technology before the Soviets. The U.S. tried to fire rockets into space several times and each one blew up in failure. Then, in a crushing blow, America lost the space race on October 4, 1957. On that day the Soviets successfully sent the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, into space orbiting the earth. Americans were frozen in fear. Could (and would) the Russians drop atom bombs on the U.S. from space? Schools practiced atomic bomb drills. Suburban Americans dug fallout shelters in their back yards in a desperate search for safety. Geiger counters (to locate radioactivity) could be purchased at any American department store.
Six months after the Russian launch of Sputnik, with tensions on both sides edging toward a breaking point, a young Van Cliburn entered the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. Unaware of what role his participation would have in world affairs, he played his way through the preliminaries, and worked his way into the final competition.

The story continues...in Texas Ingenuity

For the rest of the story >>

Texas Tidbit: Van Cliburn made his television debut on the January 19, 1955, edition of the Tonight Show and played Ravel's Toccata and a Chopin etude. He brought down the house.

The story continues in the book Texas Ingenuity... For complete information on this and other Texas stories...