When Van Cliburn conquered the U.S.S.R.

American pianist Van Cliburn from Kilgore, Texas, plays the piano during his performance in the final round of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, April 14, 1958. He won the competition. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

Weekly commentary by CBS Evening News chief Washington correspondent and Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer.

(CBS News) Fifty years ago this week, the Soviet Union held an international piano competition and named it for the great Tchaikovsky.

It was a competition with more than one purpose. The Soviets had rattled America by putting the first satellite into orbit, and to show that Russia was culturally as well as technologically superior, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev invited musicians from around the world to compete against Moscow's best.

But it didn't come out the way he planned.

Van Cliburn, a tall, rail-thin 23-year-old kid from Texas, played so brilliantly the crowd gave him an eight-minute standing ovation.

The judges saw their duty, but in a sign of the times, they checked with Khrushchev himself, before announcing their decision.

"Is he the best?" Khrushchev asked. "Then give him the prize!" And so it was done.

Van Cliburn won the hearts of the Russian people that night, came home to a ticker tape parade, and would become the most famous classical musician in the world.

An America whose confidence had been shaken by Sputnik finally had something to cheer about. Overnight, American morale soared.

Today, the piano competition named for Cliburn is perhaps the most prestigious musical competition in the world, but in an era of spoiled celebrities, Cliburn himself is little changed from the modest, shy kid who captivated a dangerous world so long ago.

For Cliburn it was never about politics, or celebrity, or even competition, but about the transformational power of art.

He is 73 now, and perhaps nothing better exemplifies that belief than his own music and the way he has lived his life. For that, Americans and Russians can be grateful.

View a video of Van Cliburn performing the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 during a return visit to Moscow in 1962 by clicking on the video player below.

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By Bob Schieffer
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    Bob Schieffer is a CBS News political contributor and former anchor of "Face The Nation," which he moderated for 24 years before retiring in 2015.