In 1958 the Cold War was at its height–or perhaps its depths. Think Sputnik, Krushchev’s overthrow of Stalin, backyard bomb shelters, and bomb drills in schools.* Not to mention Elvis Presley’s induction into the army–a Cold War weapon of a different kind.
Culture was as much of a battlefield as space. In April, Soviet Russia hosted the first Tchaikovsky Competition: an international music competition designed to demonstrate Russia’s cultural preeminence to the West. The competition was rigged. The Soviets had identified the Russian winners of the violin and piano competitions before the foreign contestants arrived. To everyone’s amazement, a twenty-three year old pianist from Texas named Van Cliburn won over Russian audiences and Soviet judges with a lush playing style and a love of classical Russian music that rivaled their own. Popular pressure from Russian audiences in favor of Van Cliburn forced the Soviet judges—with Nikita Khrushchev’s blessing—to award first prize to the Texas prodigy.
In Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story—How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War, historian Nigel Cliff brings to life Van Cliburn’s unexpected triumph and its continuing implications for Soviet-American relations through the end of the Cold War.** Cliff sets the story of the competition firmly in its historical context of political paranoia on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and both Russian and American use of culture as a diplomatic weapon. At the same time, he never loses sight of the musician and the music at its heart: Cliff’s Van Cliburn is eccentric, driven, politically innocent, big-hearted, and and wholly charming.
Moscow Nights is an engaging account of an extraordinary historical moment, best read with Van Cliburn’s recording of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 playing in the background.
*By the time I reached grade school, we were carrying our chairs to the all purpose room to watch rocket launches and enduring occasional tornado drills based on the same principles as bomb drills. Good times.
**A scene in the Reagan White House brought me close to tears.
The guts of this review first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.