Looking for some appropriate piano accompaniment to that multi-part documentary on the Cold War you’re planning? It’s an easy call—just check out the musical archives of Van Cliburn, who became synonymous with the saber-rattling U.S.-Soviet Union standoff when he won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.
Historian and journalist Nigel Cliff takes us back to the ’50s to recount that triumph, then follows Cliburn’s remarkable career through the ensuing decades against the backdrop of tension, relative calm and eventual empire breakup. (Coincidentally, when Cliburn died in 2013, tensions were entering another chilly period that persists today.)
Cliff devotes half of Moscow Nights to the piano competition itself, and rightfully so. Many baby boomers got their first exposure to classical music (not counting Warner Bros. cartoons) from the breathless media coverage of Cliburn’s triumph in Moscow, where the fix was presumably in for a Soviet pianist to win. With ordinary Muscovites and contest judges alike smitten with the 23-year-old Texan, Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself signed off on the winner. Such a musical high note was difficult to sustain, and Cliff pulls no punches in chronicling the professional and personal highs and lows that accompanied Cliburn for the rest of his career, inextricably tied to Cold War diplomacy.
That’s good news for the reader, as Cliff deftly weaves in such iconic moments as the pre-competition Sputnik launch, Khrushchev’s shoe-banging visit to the United Nations and the U-2 spy plane incident. Through it all, Cliburn maintains his place in popular culture even as his playing skills stagnate and eventually decline.
Part musical biography, part nostalgic look at the hula-hoop era and part Cold War history, Moscow Nights strikes the right chord in all respects.