“The Great Pianists” Non-Fiction: Lang Lang’s Memoir & Van Cliburn’s Biography

This month I have intensified my piano-learning (finally finishing all the piano method books I once started and jumping on Duvernoy, Schytte and Lemoine’s studies) and been listening to a lot of piano music (especially to Godowsky’s Java Suite this month), so I have also decided to share some piano-related books I have been reading recently.

I. Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story [2008] by Lang Lang – ★★★★1/2

Chinese pianist Lang Lang is considered to be one of the leading figures of today’s classical music world and one of the most accomplished pianists of our modern time. This is his memoir in which he tells his story, from his birth in 1982 in China’s north-eastern city of Shenyang, his early musical education and upbringing, to his hard-work and his family sacrificing everything to see him become “the world’s no. 1”. It is a moving autobiography of a child once living in near-poverty, but always working very hard and dreaming “big”, and then of a young man, not always believing in himself, but always being clear in his mind what he wants to achieve next, overcoming his tricky family life and the Chinese competitive system. There are no “self-indulgent” paragraphs in this memoir. It is clear and to the point, with very short chapters, in which Lang Lang, first and foremost, pays tribute to his family and his teachers, who always believed in him and enabled him to become what he is now, an immensely popular classical pianist.  

Maybe embarrassingly, but I probably first heard Lang Lang’s playing in the film The Painted Veil (2006), which featured Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1 performed by Lang Lang. Though back then I did not know it was Lang Lang’s interpretation, I remember I was struck by the depth, clarity and subtlety of his rendition of this sublime piece. But, how that was achieved? For Lang Lang, as the title suggests, it was a journey of a thousand miles. He was a naturally timid child with vivid imagination and his first teachers helped him to open up, including Miss Feng and Professor Zhu, who introduced him early to the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. As other gifted children, he had a deep connection with his instrument and “genuinely loved to play”. He incorporated his childish fantasies into the music and piano-playing. For him, it became a form of a play, rather than work or practice: “I never truly set Tom and Jerry and Monkey King and Transformers aside. I worked them into the rhythms and dramatic movements of the pieces I played” [Lang Lang, David Ritz (ed.), Spiegel & Grau, 2008: 30].

Lang Lang won his first competition at the age of five, but failed miserably in the second. Then, came the decision of his pushy father quitting his job as a police officer and moving with Lang Lang to Beijing. Lang Lang’s mother Zhou Xiulan is a real hero of this chapter in the pianist’s life since she sacrificed a lot by working so hard and so far away from her child so he can have a chance to be instructed by better piano teachers in the capital. Lang Lang started to prepare for the conservatory’s examinations under the guidance of one “Angry Teacher” and then under Professor Zhao. He won a scholarship, an admission, and, later, numerous competitions, having success both in China and in Germany. His career skyrocketed in the US (he was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music, played with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and impressed maestro Christoph Eschenbach). 

Lang Lang is incredible as a pianist because of his willingness to embrace so many composers from different countries (he was even listening to rap when he was young). Russia “nourished” him, Franz Liszt became his idol. Lang Lang will play everything, from Chopin’s hardest pieces to Bach’s simplest minuets for beginners, and will do so with the same passion, seriousness and concentration. I also admire Lang Lang for his role as an educator and supporter of piano-learning. He is an Ambassador of the Leeds International Piano Competition and, in 2008, started his own Lang Lang Foundation, designed to inspire and enable children to pursue music. It is safe to say that Lang Lang is a true “beginners’ pianist”.

Lang Lang’s engrossing memoir often reads like an exciting coming-of-age story with many takeaways. At the end of the day, the audience is never fooled. It felt Lang Lang’s genuine passion for classical music and his strong desire to share it with others, and, thus, rewarded him with something that is extremely difficult to achieve for any classical pianist in the modern time: their hearts.  

This Bagatelle No. 25 in A Minor (“Für Elise”) by Beethoven is a slower version of that that now forms part of Lang Lang’s album Piano Book [2019], where he plays the pieces that shaped his childhood and inspired him to become a pianist.

II. Moscow Nights : The Van Cliburn Story – How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War [2016] by Nigel Cliff – ★★★★

We now have a Tchaikovsky competition and an American pianist who plays well…we don’t know what to do”, a Soviet Minister reports to First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev; Khrushchev: – “What do the others say about him? Is he the best?” – “Yes, he is the best” – “In that case, give him the first prize.

This is the story of Louisiana-born American pianist Van Cliburn and his unbelievable “conquest” of the Soviet Union in times of the Cold War. Immensely talented and aged only 23, lanky, innocent-looking Cliburn won the hearts of the Soviet people at the very first Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, a competition that was designed to showcase the supremacy of the Soviets. From the depth of Texas wilderness to the heart of Moscow, he made the longest journey of his life, but his greatest accomplishment was not physical or even musical, it was spiritual, piercing the Russian soul, leaving it craving for more, while also uniting two opposing nations, even for a very brief period.

Van Cliburn, born in 1934, was a child prodigy, “taking to piano like children take to toys”, and beginning his first piano lessons at the age of three from his mother, Rildia Bee O’Bryan, an accomplished pianist who never realised her own dream of becoming a concert pianist. It was his mother, who once studied with a student of Franz Liszt and even met Sergei Rachmaninoff, who instilled in young Cliburn the love for Russian music and composers. When Cliburn entered the Juilliard School in New York, he began his studies under Rosina Lhévinne, the celebrated pianist and Russian émigré, who was so strict in her practice room with her students that it was said that “whoever was able to go through their pieces in her room was then able to play anywhere in the world.” When Cliburn entered the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, few thought he would have any success and he had some notable competition, for example, from Soviet Lev Vlassenko and from Chinese talent Liu Shikun. The jury was as intimidating, comprising Shostakovich, Richter, Oborin, Gilels and Kabalevsky. However, it turned out Cliburn should not have worried – even in the preliminary round his interpretation of Tchaikovsky was viewed as so “ecstatically lyrical, thrillingly Romantic, and symphonic in scale …[that] tears glistened in many eyes” [Nigel Cliff, Harper, 2016: 137]. His final performance at the Competition earned him the first prize when the jury agreed that his performance was the best, and his concert boasted an unprecedented eight-minute standing ovation.

The Soviets saw that Cliburn genuinely loved the music he played and they were entranced by his innocence, sincerity and passion. If Russians conquered Cliburn’s heart, with the pianist saying that the warmth and sincerity of the Russian people reminded him of the Texan people back home, he definitely conquered theirs, with the whole fan-base establishing over Van Cliburn in Moscow and beyond. His later career had its ups and downs, with Cliburn playing for every American President, but always being somewhat uncomfortable with fame and never managing to dispel the Texan stereotypes nor the prejudice concerning his sexuality. There were many years when he did not touch the keys publicly, and he passed away in 2013.

Nigel Cliff’s biography is so incredibly detailed that it is often quite difficult to see the narrative through the multitude of little facts presented, but the book’s incredible thoroughness may also be its strength. Van Cliburn’s achievement was a triumph of people’s humanity and love for music over politics and national barriers. At least for the duration of Cliburn’s pieces, the American and Soviet people united in their sincere appreciation of great music, in their common feelings of gratitude to one another for the talents on display, showing kindness and human understanding that transcended flags and language-barriers.

The “singing” style of Cliburn’s play is evident in this rendition of Solovyov-Sedoi’s “Moscow Nights” (Подмосковные вечера, lit. translation “Moscow environs’ evenings”) (Cliburn’s own arrangement). As a Russian listening to this, I am moved to tears, and if this is so, I can only imagine the effect it had on the Soviet people listening live in 1958.

6 thoughts on ““The Great Pianists” Non-Fiction: Lang Lang’s Memoir & Van Cliburn’s Biography

  1. Amazing blog piece!

    As a classically trained pianist, I’m so glad to have found your blog + read your posts. Lang Lang sounds amazing. And the book on Van Cliburn seems like a must-read. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Van Cliburn’s electrifying rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. I’ve lost count over the years. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Long enjoyed Lang Lang’s style of playing, full of sensitivity and emotion, with any technical difficulties appearing nonexistent. And such an engaging personality and a whizz at communication. Van Cliburn, I’m ashamed to say, is a name new to me, but I’m intrigued.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Lang Lang is incredible. If there is a stereotype of the classical music world peopled by aloof “deities”, Lang Lang appears so down-to-earth and approachable. Apparently, he is the reason millions of children in China take up the piano every year, it’s called “the Lang Lang effect”, so amazing and inspirational.

      Liked by 1 person

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