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Friends of Baptist musician Cliburn say his faith was forefrontcomment (0)

March 14, 2013

Friends of Baptist musician Cliburn say his faith was forefront


News reports of Van Cliburn’s Feb. 27 death in Fort Worth, Texas, extolled the internationally acclaimed pianist as one of history’s greatest classical musicians. Friends at Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, however, remember him as a great Baptist whose Christian faith came before his career.

Cliburn shot to fame at age 23 by winning the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition — and with it the hearts of Nikita Khrushchev and the Russian people. It was said the accomplishment did more to ease Cold War tensions than any diplomacy could.

The man who was 78 when bone cancer claimed his life also is recalled as a great humanitarian, philanthropist and friend. His generosity included a sizable donation to help Broadway Baptist purchase the Rildia Bee O’Bryan Cliburn Organ, with 191 ranks and 10,655 pipes — the largest organ in Texas — named after Cliburn’s mother and completed in 1996.

“We have lost a giant,” said longtime friend Tom Stoker, who was the minister of music at Cliburn’s home church in Fort Worth in the 1990s. “People of this generation do not understand that Van did as much as anybody to thaw the Cold War — and he did that carrying Christ in his heart.”

Later generations may not know it, but Cliburn was an international sensation in his 20s. It was six months after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik that he arrived in Moscow for the first-ever Tchaikovsky competition. With much the same fanfare that comes today with “American Idol,” he captivated Russians and Americans alike as he won round after round.

He was met with a ticker tape parade in New York City upon his return and soon graced the cover of Time Magazine as “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”

Cliburn worshipped at Broadway since 1986 after moving to Fort Worth from New York City. 

Stoker said Cliburn’s faith wasn’t the kind that came later in life, or even with his cancer diagnosis in August 2012. When studying at Julliard he played the organ at Calvary Baptist Church, New York — and even lived upstairs from the church in the hotel it owned.

“He prayed before every concert, and there was never a meal in Van’s house that was not blessed,” Stoker said. “He lived his life out of his faith, and he lived life large.”

Cliburn learned his approach to faith growing up Baptist in Texas and Louisiana, said Al Travis, director of music ministries and organist at Broadway.

Cliburn’s father was the Sunday School superintendent at First Baptist Church, Kilgore, Texas, and his mother the organist.

“He spoke of his gratitude for growing up the son of parents who loved each other and for being raised in the church,” Travis said. “He was grateful for the old hymns of the church.”

Cliburn’s love of music cannot be understood apart from his Baptist faith, because he saw his talent the same way he saw his money — as temporary gifts from God, Travis added.

In that way, Travis said, Cliburn’s music and performances were his way of doing evangelism. “He had a sense of responsibility of sharing that gift with the world and thought his gift would make the world a more humane place.”  


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