After the death of his father in 1974, Cliburn announced he would soon retire to spend more time with his ailing mother. He stopped touring in 1978.
He told The New York Times in 2008 that among other things, touring robbed him of the chance to enjoy opera and other musical performances. "I said to myself, 'Life is too short.' I was missing so much,'' he said. After winning the competition, he added, "it was thrilling to be wanted. But it was pressure too.''
Cliburn emerged from his sabbatical in 1987, when he played at a state dinner at the White House during the historic visit to Washington of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev leapt from his seat to give the pianist a bearhug and kisses on the cheeks.
The 13th Cliburn competition, held in 2009, made history when a blind pianist from Japan, Nobuyuki Tsujii, and a teenager from China, Haochen Zhang, both won gold medals. They were the first winners from any Asian country, and Tsujii was the first blind pianist to win. And it was only the second time there were dual first place winners.
Cliburn was born Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr. on July 12, 1934, in Shreveport, La., the son of oilman Harvey Cliburn Sr. and Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn. At age 3, he began studying piano with his mother, herself an accomplished pianist who had studied with a pupil of the great 19th century Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt.
The family moved back to Kilgore, Texas, within a few years of his birth.
Cliburn won his first Texas competition when he was 12, and two years later he played in Carnegie Hall as the winner of the National Music Festival Award.
At 17, Cliburn attended the Juilliard School in New York, where fellow students marveled at his marathon practice sessions that stretched until 3 a.m. He studied under the famed Russian-born pianist Rosina Lhevinne.
Between 1952 and 1958, he won all but one competition he entered, including the G.B. Dealey Award from the Dallas Symphony, the Kosciusko Foundation Chopin Scholarship and the prestigious Leventritt. By age 20, he had played with the New York Philharmonic and the symphonies of most major cities.
Cliburn's career seemed ready to take off until his name came up for the draft. Cliburn had to cancel all shows but was eventually excused from duty due to chronic nosebleeds.
Over the next few years, Cliburn's international popularity continued as he recorded pieces ranging from Mozart to a concerto by American Edward McDowell. Still, having been trained by arguably the best Russian teachers in the world, Cliburn's heart was Russian, with the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concertos.
After 1990, Cliburn toured Japan numerous times and performed throughout the United States. He was in the midst of a 16-city U.S. tour in 1994 when his mother died at age 97.
Cliburn made his home in Fort Worth, where in 1998 he appeared at the opening of the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, both in recital and as soloist with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. He endowed scholarships at many schools, including Juilliard, which gave him an honorary doctorate, and the Moscow and Leningrad Conservatories.
In December 2001, Cliburn was presented with the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors Medallion at the televised tribute held in Washington.
Until only recently, Cliburn practiced daily and performed limited engagements.
Cliburn is survived by his manager and longtime friend, Thomas L. Smith.