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Cliburn passed away at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, after suffering from bone cancer, his publicist Mary Lou Falcone told Reuters.
The lanky, blue-eyed Texan, who began taking piano lessons at the age of 3 and later trained at New York's prestigious Juilliard School, burst on to the world stage at the height of the Cold War and was the surprise winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.
His performance at the finale led to an eight-minute standing ovation and was so unexpected that the Russian judges reportedly had to ask Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for permission to give the top prize to the 23-year-old American.
Cliburn's triumph helped spur a brief thaw in US-Soviet relations and made him an overnight sensation in the United States, where his name was known even among those who did not follow classical music.
"It was he that was the symbol of peace for the Cold War," Falcone said. "He was embraced by both Eisenhower and Khrushchev in the 1950s and the only musician to have a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan."