Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich

"A thorough going Romantic" describes the musicality of Russian-born Mstislav (Slava) Leopoldovich Rostropovich (born 1927). While also active as a pianist and composer, he achieved international renown as a cellist and conductor.

Mstislav Rostropovich was born in Baku, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, on March 27, 1927. The family was musical, his father being a professional cellist, his mother an accomplished pianist, and his sister a violinist with the Moscow Philharmonic. Rostropovich received his first lessons on both the cello and piano from his parents while quite young and, when the family moved to Moscow, he attended the Gnesin Institute where his father taught.

In 1943 he entered the Moscow Conservatory, studying with Semyon Kozolupov (cello) and Dmitri Shostakovich and Vissaryon Shebalin (composition), among others. He graduated with the highest distinction.

Rostropovich had won competitions for his cello playing in Moscow, Prague, and Budapest by the late 1940s. In 1956 he received a post as cello professoshipr at the Moscow Conservatory. By now an international career was well established, documented by numerous prizes and tours of Europe and the United States. His American debut took place at Carnegie Hall, New York, in April 1956. During the same period he met his future wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, then a soprano with the Bolshoi Opera. He occasionally served as her piano accompanist in song recitals. Their two daughters are both musicians.

Rostropovich brought to his performances a complete command of the cello and a display of emotional intensity that were at once apparent to the audience. His technique maintained both accuracy of pitch and fullness of tone through the entire range of the instrument, and he excelled in producing a wide variety of tone colors. Flaws in his playing were more often of a musical, rather than technical, nature, such as his occasional tendency to overplay and his lapses in phrasing continuity. His repertoire extended from Bach to the moderns, several of whom wrote works for him. The list includes Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Penderecki, Lutoslawski, and Britten.

Beginning in 1975 Rostropovich played a cello, the "Duport," created by Antonio Stradivari in 1711. The instrument was in perfect condition except for a mark on its lower body, said to have been put there by Napoleon who, after hearing Duport play, asked to examine the instrument and accidentally bumped it with his spur.

Although Rostropovich had been interested in conducting since childhood, his career in this art did not pick up until after 1968, when he made his debut at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow with Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. He credited much of his ability to the observations he was able to make while performing as a soloist under various conductors. While he once made the statement that "no performer's identity is as important as the composer's," he was criticized for exaggerated and sometimes sentimental interpretations, tendencies also found in his cello playing. He was therefore most comfortable with music where these qualities are more appropriate—emotional works of the Romantic and Post-Romantic periods. He had, though, surprising success with some of the more "difficult" moderns, including Penderecki, Lutoslawski, and C. Halffter.

A defender of personal freedoms, Rostropovich ran afoul of the Soviet State for coming to the aid of his friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was refused admittance into Moscow after the publication in the West of The First Circle and Cancer Ward. Rostropovich first allowed the writer to stay with him for an extended period and then, when Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 and was still not allowed to publish in Russia, wrote a letter to the press on his friend's behalf. The letter, which attacked Soviet censorship of the arts, the suppression of human rights, and the incompetence of those in administrative positions in the arts, remained unpublished in Russia but was picked up by foreign presses. Then began an official harassment of the careers of both Rostropovich and his wife. Their passports were confiscated and all tours outside the country canceled. At home they were limited to lesser engagements in remote places and when performances were broadcast their names were removed from the list of credits. A letter from Rostropovich to Brezhnev went unanswered. Finally, the intercession of several prominent people in the United States, including Leonard Bernstein and Senator Edward Kennedy, persuaded officials to allow Rostropovich and his family a two-year absence from the country during which they would be based in Britain. Both he and his wife were stripped of their Soviet citizenship in March 1978.

A successful concert he had given in Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony Orchestra led to a post as music director with that orchestra beginning in 1977. He was also a regular guest conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for several years and it was with this orchestra that he made the first recording of Shostakovich's opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, his wife singing the role of Katerina. While with the London Philharmonic Orchestra he recorded the complete symphonies of Tchaikovsky, a composer he regarded more highly than do most musicians.

When he heard of the right-wing coup in the U.S.S.R. on August 19, 1991, Rostropovich flew immediately to Moscow. Continuing his dedication to freedom, he spent the next three days in the Russian parliament building while the coup collapsed around him. He called this time "the best days of my life." Those types of days became even more frequent. In May, 1997, wrapped in an emotional visit to his native Azerbaijan he offered his music or even his life to prevent new fighting in the region. During his five-day stay he offered to play for the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan for as long as it took to settle the long dispute over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Leaving for Moscow, he said, "If there is a new outbreak of hostilities in the conflict zone, I will go there, stand between the forces and say: Better kill me."

Although not originally known as a composer, Rostropovich retained an active interest in writing music throughout his career. He dismissed his student works as "bad imitations of Prokofiev," but occasionally included some later pieces in his own cello recitals. His compositions include two piano concertos, a work for a string quartet, various piano and cello pieces, and a satirical cantata.

His composing career has given him several widely acclaimed distinctions. In June, 1994, he conducted his last subscription concert as music director at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The program, Verdi Requiem, more or less personified its leader: big, impassioned and extroverted and topped off his 17 seasons as the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra.

In October, 1995, he returned to Russia to fight for a new cause-the costly and controversial reconstruction of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. It was said, that hundreds of wealthy and well-dressed Russians paid $1,000 apiece to hear Rostropovich conduct and play cello in the Moscow Conservatory.

April, 1997 gave Rostropovich the distinction of being the last conductor to play the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Hall before the $105 million renovation and expansion transformed the Orchestra Hall into Symphony Center.

Rostropovich did not give up his cello. In March of 1997, he, at age 70, played works by Marcello, Beethoven, Bach, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich at the music festival in Monaco, dedicated to the memory of Princess Grace.

Among his numerous awards and distinctions were the Stalin Prize (1951); the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society, London (1970); honorary doctorates from Harvard (1974) and Cambridge (1975) universities; Officer of the French Légion d'honneur (1982); the Anti-Defamation League Award (1985); and was made an honorary knight in 1987.

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Further Reading on Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich

As Rostropovich divided his career between the cello and conducting, so the curious reader must consult different sources for either branch of his activities. The monthly periodical The Strad followed his life as a cellist very closely, scarcely an issue being without some mention of him. The Washington Post contained updates on his conducting engagements with the National Symphony Orchestra. This newspaper is indexed separately as well as in the National Newspaper Index, the latter being perhaps the more current. Helena Matheopoulos devoted a chapter to Rostropovich the conductor in her book Maestro: Encounters with Conductors of Today (1982). Rostropovich himself described the harassment of his and his wife's careers in an article in the New York Times (March 6, 1975). See also Chicago Tribune, "Grand Finale," 04/26/97; "CSO Announces 1996-97 Schedule," 02/09/96; "Famed Conductor Performs For Cathedral In Moscow," 10/23/95; "Verdi Requiem Is Swan Song For Rostropovich," 06/17/94. New York Times "Music Festival In Monaco," March 16, 1997. LA Times "World in Brief, Azerbaijan, Rostropovich Offers Music, Life for Peace," May 4, 1997.