086: Lanternfish

Noun: lanternfish (plural lanternfish or lanternfishes) – any of small, deep sea fish of the large family Myctophidae, named after their conspicuous use of bioluminescence.

I must have screamed for twenty seconds straight after logging on to Facebook this afternoon: a friend of mine had set his status to bid Van Cliburn adieu.

I cannot say that I was especially attached to him. I have never heard him in concert (he was famous before I was born), and I have never actually looked far into his recordings. He occupies a fair amount of space in the classical section of Rasputin’s, and I think I will help trim that down tomorrow before they’re all bought by mourners. We have maybe ONE CD of his but it was jumpy and laden with noise, so I never learned to enjoy it. I may dig it up when I next go home.

I’ll try to get everything out of my system now, and be frank, little as it matters. I have long thought Van Cliburn to be overhyped. An AMERICAN pianist actually triumphing over the Soviet Musical Army! An AMERICAN pianist forced Khrushchev himself to concede defeat! An AMERICAN pianist caused this enormous upset in Moscow! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this historical 1958 victory for America was really something at the height of the Cold War.

Is it still relevant today? Yes, because American Exceptionalism. Because culture. Because VAN CLIBURN.

But I judge too hard. His value is decided neither by rampant nationalism nor period politics. I know better than that. I have long since learned that technique isn’t everything, and that heart is one of those things that actually matters in music, irrelevant as it is to many other areas of business. And Van Cliburn, of all people, most certainly had heart. Sure, after his death, all we can hear about him are the good things: but from the little reading I did about him before today, I conclude honestly that he was a good man whose life and self were well-defined and well-tempered. More than his self, but his music, too, was something that was pure and whole and good.

I have not heard enough of his playing to judge his music. And what right have I to judge it, even after hearing it? I’m hardly qualified to break apart Blechacz, but Van Cliburn … ?

If for nothing else, let the American people – pianists, philistines, and all in between – mourn together for the loss of this great man. He stood strong for the American people when they needed a hero; he stood strong for music all through his life, for everybody to enjoy. And not just the Americans – for the loss of his musicianship, the world will mourn him.

It would be boorish to make comparisons to other pianists. It will suffice to say that today we lost one of the greatest maestros of the century. Though nobody will ever replace – perhaps never even come close to emulating you – thousands, if not millions of other pianists will endeavor to carry on in your footsteps. Nobuyuki Tsujii, whom you admired so ardently, is one such figure. Take your hard-earned rest with satisfaction, knowing that your legacy is continued and broadened by those who follow you.

For the umpteenth time, I don’t believe in God. But were I Baptist like Van Cliburn, I would surely believe that some small corner of heaven (the size of a concert hall. Heaven is pretty big) with the most beautiful piano ever crafted is reserved for Cliburn to settle down in. And every week he’ll give concerts for the angels and the people of Heaven – and maybe God himself will stop in and listen and give his approval.

Rest in Peace, Van Cliburn; God bless you.



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