Rostropovich, Mstislav (Leopoldovich)

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Rostropovich, Mstislav (Leopoldovich)

Rostropovich, Mstislav (Leopoldovich) , famous Russian cellist and conductor, son of Leopold Rostropovich; b. Baku, March 27, 1927. A precocious child, he began cello studies with his father at an early age; also had piano lessons from his mother. In 1931 the family moved to Moscow, where he made his debut when he was 8; continued his training at the Central Music School (1939–41); then studied cello with Kozolupov and composition with Shebalin and Shostakovich at the Moscow Cons. (1943–48); subsequently studied privately with Prokofiev. He won the International Competition for Cellists in Prague in 1950, and the next year made his first appearance in the West in Florence. A phenomenally successful career ensued. He made his U.S. debut at N.Y.’s Carnegie Hall in 1956, winning extraordinary critical acclaim. He became a teacher (1953) and a prof. (1956) at the Moscow Cons., and also a prof. at the Leningrad Cons. (1961). A talented pianist, he frequently appeared as accompanist to his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya , whom he married in 1955. In 1961 he made his first appearance as a conductor. As his fame increased, he received various honors, including the Lenin Prize in 1963 and the Gold Medal of the Royal Phil. Soc. of London in 1970. In spite of his eminence and official honors, however, he encountered difficulties with the Soviet authorities, owing chiefly to his spirit of uncompromising independence. He let the dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn stay at his dacha near Moscow, protesting the Soviet government’s treatment of the Nobel prize winner for literature in a letter to Pravda in 1969. Although the letter went unpubl. in his homeland, it was widely disseminated in the West. As a result, Rostropovich found himself increasingly hampered in his career by the Soviet Ministry of Culture. His concerts were canceled without explanation, as were his wife’s engagements at the Bolshoi Theater. Foreign tours were forbidden, as were appearances on radio, television, and recordings. In 1974 he and his wife obtained permission to go abroad, and were accompanied by their 2 daughters. He made a brilliant debut as a guest conductor with the National Sym. Orch. in Washington, D.C. (March 5, 1975); his success led to his appointment as its music director in 1977. Free from the bureaucratic annoyances of the U.S.S.R., he and his wife publicized stories of their previous difficulties at home in Russia. Annoyed by such independent activities, the Moscow authorities finally stripped them both of their Soviet citizenship as “ideological renegades.” The Soviet establishment even went so far as to remove the dedication to Rostropovich of Shostakovich’s 2nd Cello Concerto. The whole disgraceful episode ended when the Soviet government, chastened by perestroika, restored Rostropovich’s citizenship in Jan. 1990, and invited him to take the National Sym. Orch. to the U.S.S.R. Besides conducting the American orch. there, Rostropovich appeared as soloist in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. His return to Russia was welcomed by the populace as a vindication of his principles of liberty. A symbolic linguistic note: the difficult-to-pronounce first name of Rostropovich, which means “avenged glory,” is usually rendered by his friends and admirers as simply Slava, that is, “glory.” In 1993 he took the National Sym. Orch. on another visit to Russia and on Sept. 26 conducted it in a special concert in Moscow’s Red Square in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the death of Tchaikovsky. In 1994 he stepped down as the orch.’s music director and was named life-time conductor laureate.

Rostropovich is duly recognized as one of the greatest cellists of the century, a master interpreter of both the standard and the contemporary literature. To enhance the repertoire for his instrument, he commissioned and premiered numerous scores, including works by Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Piston, and Foss. As a conductor, he proved himself an impassioned and authoritative interpreter of the music of the Russian national and Soviet schools of composition. He organized the 1st Rostropovich International Cello Competition in Paris in 1981 and the Rostropovich Festival in Snape, England, in 1983. He was made an Officer of the French Légion d’honneur in 1982, and received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II of England in 1987. In 1993 he was awarded the Japanese Praemium Imperiale. He received the Polar Music Prize of Sweden in 1995.


T. Gaidamovich, M. R. (Moscow, 1969); J. Roy, R., Gainsbourg et Dieu (Paris, 1992); S. Khentova, R. (St. Petersburg, 1993); C. Samuel, M. R. and Galina Vishnevskaya: Russia, Music, and Liberty: Conversations with Claude Samuel (Portland, Ore., 1995); T. Grum-Grzhimako, R. i ego sovremenniki: V legendakh, byliakh i dialogakh (Moscow, 1997).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire