Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2003 (11.3)
Pages 28-29

Music Awards
Van Cliburn Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Left: Concert Pianist Van Cliburn receiving the President Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in the White House in July. Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow (1958).

On July 23, 2003, President George W. Bush honored Concert Pianist Van Cliburn with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest U.S. award bestowed upon civilians. President Truman established the prize in 1945 to recognize notable service in the war. In 1963, President Kennedy reintroduced it as an honor for distinguished civilian service during peacetime.

Cliburn was among 10 recipients of this year's award which included: Jacques Barzu (historian), Julia Child (gourmet chef), Roberto Clemente Walker (baseball player), Vaclav Havel (former President of Czech Republic), Charton Heston (actor), Edward Teller (physicist), R. David Thomas (entrepreneur), Byron Raymond White (Supreme Court Justice), James Q. Wilson (political scientist) and John R. Wooden (basketball coach).

In 1958, Cliburn was the first winner of the Tschaikovski International Piano Competition, which was held in Moscow.

It was the height of the Cold War tension between the Soviet Union and the West, and Khrushchev was in power. Van
Cliburn's victory was a phenomenal achievement for the 23-year-old and caused a sensation both in the USSR and the U.S. Much to Khruschev's credit, the Soviet leader allowed a non-Russian, who in this case showed himself to be the superior performer, to win the coveted prize. Cliburn returned home to a ticker tape parade in New York City. See "The Era of Van Cliburn: Musical Phenomenon in the Midst of Cold War," in Azerbaijan International, AI 3.3 (Autumn 1995). Search at

Cliburn's link with Azerbaijan was his piano performance in Baku's Philharmonic Hall two years later on June 28, 1960. Those who were fortunate enough to gain admittance (approximately 1,500 people) still remember the concert vividly.

Cliburn went on to tour widely and then created the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition which helps launch the careers of younger pianists. The Competition held in Fort Worth, Texas, every four years gathers approximately 30 young musicians from around the world to celebrate their gifts and compete for a wide variety of prizes, including generous cash awards and numerous concert engagements. The Twelfth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition will be held May 20-June 5, 2005. See

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