Rostropovich, Mstislav

views updated May 11 2018

Mstislav Rostropovich

Cellist, conductor

Paying Back The Blankets

The Young Master

Stirrings of Dissent

Reborn in the West

Selected Discography


Among the many great artists produced by the former Soviet Union over the course of its recent history, few have enjoyed the prominence of Mstislav Rostropovich. Considered by many critics to be the greatest cellist in the world today, Rostropovich is equaled in stature only by Pablo Casals, the legendary early twentieth century innovator who transformed the cello from an orchestral supporting player to a principal star. Rostropovichs talent is not limited to the cello alone; he is also a gifted composer of classical music and a world renowned conductor. But perhaps his most enduring legacy is symbolic: the events of his artistic life have been closely intertwined with many of modern historical developments in the former Soviet Union. To this day, Rostropovich remains a living embodiment of intellectual resistance to oppression as he continues to strive toward freedom inherent to artistic expression.

Rostropovich was born March 27, 1927 in the southern city of Baku, now the capital of Azerbaijan. His mother Sofia played the piano; his father Leopold was a distinguished if impoverished cellist who had studied under Casals. From an early age, Rostropovichs musical ability was evident. He began playing the piano at age four and at age eight took up formal musical instruction in the cello as his fathers pupil. In 1934 the Rostropovich family moved to Moscow so that the children could receive the best possible musical instruction (Rostropovichs older sister Veronica later became a talented violinist who played with the Moscow Philharmonic.)

Paying Back The Blankets

Rostropovichs childhood and adolescence in Moscow were marked by harsh poverty, as his family scraped out a meager existence on Leopold Rostropovichs salary as a musician while sharing a small apartment with another family. With the beginning of World War 11, their lives were made even more difficult by the scarcity of food and fuel and their forced evacuation to the Ural mountains to avoid the advancing Nazis. The greatest blow, however, was to come in 1942 when Leopold died of a heart attack, forcing Rostropovich, at age 14, to begin working full time as a professional musician and music teacher to help support his mother and sister. It is a measure of Rostropovichs precociousness that most of his pupils were in their late twenties or early thirties, over twice his age.

The bleakness of his childhood and adolescence and the swiftness with which Rostropovich was forced to mature affected him profoundly. Looking backon these difficult years in a 1977 interview in Harvard Magazine, he admitted they had given a tremendous drive to my

For the Record

Born Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich on March 27, 1927 in Baku, Azerbaijan (Former Soviet Union); son of Leopold Rostropovich (a professional musician) and Sofia Fedotova-Rostropovich (a pianist); married in May 1955 to Galina Vishnevskaya (an opera singer); Children: Olga (daughter) and Elena (daughter). Education: Gnesin Institute (Moscow); Moscow Conservatory; studied with Semyon Kozolupov; Sergei Prokofiev; Dmitri Shostakovich.

Cellist, conductor, pianist. Began performing in 1942; has appeared or recorded with the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields (London); the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; the Boston Symphony Orchestra; the English Chamber Orchestra (London); the Leningrad Philharmonic; the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the London Symphony Orchestra; the Moscow Philharmonic; the Moscow Radio Orchestra; the Moscow State Orchestra; the Moscow Youth Symphony; the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington, D.C.); the Philadelphia Orchestra; the Orchestre National de France; the Royal Philharmonic (London).

Selected awards: Polar Music Prize; Praemium Impe-riale Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts; State Prize of the Russian Federation; Presidential Medal of Freedom; Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire; Commander of the Legion of Honor (France); Order of Merit of West Germany; Certificate of Commendation of the Organization of American States; Annual Award of the International League of Human Rights; Albert Schweitzer Music Award; Ernst von Seimens Foundation Music Prize; Lenin Prize of the U.S.S.R.; Stalin Prize of the U.S.S.R.; Peoples Artist of the U.S.S.R.; Youth Festival of Prague - First Prize; Youth Festival of Budapest - First Prize.

Address: Management Columbia Artists Management Inc., 165 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

life. It was this drive that would send him to the top of his profession, making him a prolific performer and recording artist. He was also inspired by small acts of kindness in the wake of his fathers death, as strangers brought his family wood to heat their apartment. Such efforts were instrumental in shaping broad impulses of generosity and humanitarianism in him. In one particular instance, while sleeping in a freezing train compartment on a tour to another town, the young Rostropovich awoke to find all of his fellow musicians had put their blankets over him, sacrificing their comfortfor his. As he affirmed in a New York Times article, With all of my art, I dont believe I have begun to pay people back, not even for those blankets.

At the wars end, Rostropovich entered the Moscow Conservatory music school, completing a five year course in cello in two years while working part time as a carpenter to aid his family. Among his teachers in the conservatory were the pre-eminent Soviet composers of the era, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, who both became close friends with Rostropovich and who would later compose works expressly for him. The influence of the two composers was tremendously important, particularly that of Prokofiev who taught Rostropovich how to compose by conceptualizing instruments as though they had a human voice.

At this time, Rostropovich had his first taste of Soviet cultural politics. In 1948 the Soviet Communist Partys Central Committee attacked the works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and several other composers as disharmonious and anti-socialist, resulting in a two year banishment from the musical scene for the composers in which none of their works was performed. But Rostropovich continued to take instruction from his two colleagues, and even went so far as to move in with Prokofiev, an extremely risky step given the political climate in the Soviet Union of the time. This was the first instance of Rostropovichs tendency toward political and intellectual independence, a trait that would resurface in later years with dire consequences for himself and his family.

In spite of his defiance, Rostropovichs career flourished, particularly with the loosening of cultural constraints that followed the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. His talents received worldwide recognition through his recordings, leading eventually to tours in the West. Within the Soviet Union, he was awarded two Stalin Prizes, a Lenin Prize (the Soviet Unions highest honor,) and was named as a Peoples Artist of the U.S.S.R. In 1955, he married Galina Vishnevskaya, the principal soprano of the Bolshoi opera, with whom he would tour extensively acting as her accompanist. The couple had two daughters, Olga in 1956 and Elena in 1959; both eventually followed in their fathers footsteps as musicians.

The Young Master

What struck Rostropovichs listeners then and over the course of his career was his complete mastery of his instrument, which imparted a personal stamp upon any piece of music he played. John von Rhein, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, emphasized that No cellist commands so extensive a tonal range, from a sonorous throb to a ferocious rasp to the most delicate, bell-like harmonics. The expressive qualities Rostropovich was able to project into his interpretation enabled him to perform pieces composed for the cello in a new and strikingly different way, vastly expanding the instruments range and audience appeal.

Almost single-handedly, Rostropovich continued the work begun by Pablo Casals of enlarging the repertory available for cello, enhancing its profile and inspiring a future generation of musicians. At the beginning of his career, Shostakovich and Prokofiev composed for him. In 1960 Rostropovich met Benjamin Britten, the innovative British composer who was inspired to create a Cello Symphony, the Sonata for Cello and Piano, and several other orchestral works for him. Other prominent composers who created works expressly for Rostropovich over his career included Aram Khachaturian, Olivier Messian, Henri Dutilleux, Astor Piazzola, and Leonard Bernstein.

Not content merely to perform music, Rostropovich made his debut as a conductor in 1961. Although he would not be as widely acclaimed in this field as for his solo work on the cello, he established himself as competent and highly original, known for his ability to communicate with musicians. Among the many works he recorded as a conductor were the complete symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and a number of Russian operas, including Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk of Shostakovich, whose work Rostropovich, in a gesture typical of him, would continually champion throughout his career in spite of the latters political unpopularity.

Stirrings of Dissent

By the mid-1960s, Rostropovich had reached the artistic pinnacle. Touring extensively at home and abroad, performing, conducting, and accompanying his wife, he enjoyed popular acclaim and the support of the Soviet cultural authorities as evidenced by a luxurious Moscow apartment and a country house in an area reserved for great artists and high government officials. But trouble was looming behind the scenes, a byproduct of Rostropovichs willfully defiant friendship with the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose anti-Stalinist novels Cancer Ward and The First Circle were condemned as subversive by the Soviet official press on their 1968 publication in the West. No doubt remembering the earlier persecution of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, in 1969 Rostropovich allowed Solzhenitsyn to move into his country house, where the writer would remain for the next four years.

From this point forward, the Soviet cultural authorities benevolent attitude toward Rostropovich began to sour. Constantly pressured to evict Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich adamantly refused. His loyalty to his friend became even more problematic from the official point of view when Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel prize for literature in 1970 and it was widely reported in the Soviet press that Rostropovich was sheltering him. Not content with merely helping his friend, at that point Rostropovich decided to take the radical step of publicly defending him.

On October 31, 1970, Rostropovich sent a letter to four leading Soviet newspapers protesting theofficial stance against Solzhenitsyn and openly indicating his support for him. When the papers failed to publish it, the letter was released to the Western press and widely circulated. Among the many controversial opinions it expressed, none was more bold than that contained in the simple rhetorical question: Why is it that in our literature and our art the decisive word so often belongs to people who are absolutely incompetent in these fields? This open declaration of what many acknowledged in private sent shock waves through the Soviet world.

Reborn in the West

The embarassingly frank letter brought an immediate and repressive backlash from the Soviet government. Beginning in late 1970, concert appearances and tours by Rostropovich, and his wife, were cancelled on obviously trumped-up grounds, such as his being in poor health or untalented. All references to Rostropovich and his wife vanished from official publications, newspapers, and encyclopedias. In a calculated attempt to deprive the Rostropovichs of their artistic standing, the authorities even refused to print their names on posters and programs in the few instances in which they were allowed to perform. By the summer of 1973, the greatest cellist in the world was reduced to sailing down the Volta River with a second rate orchestra to give a series of sparsely attended concerts in small riverside towns.

However, Rostropovichs plight had not gone unnoticed in the outside world. The turning point came when Senator Edward Kennedy personally appealed to then Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev to allow Rostropovich and his family to leave the Soviet Union. In May 1974, they were granted exit visas and left for the United States, with Rostropovich vowing not to return until full artisticfreedomwasavailabletoall. In 1978, Rostropovich and his wife, two of the greatest Russian artists of the century, were stripped of their Soviet citizenship for, as the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet put it, acts harmful to the prestige of the USSR.

Once safely established in the West, Rostropovichs career experienced a swift renaissance. Plunging back into recording and performing, he also made his American debut as a conductor, appearing as a guest with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C. in 1975. Borne by wave of enthusiasm aroused by his performance, he was hired as the orchestras Music Director; he would retain the position until 1994, considerably elevating the National Symphonys artistic and public profile. Rostropovichs financial situation also underwent a rebirth as well, as he discovered the marketing power of a prestigious name in the world of classical music. Although the fees he commanded for recording and performances were not a matter of public record, they were said to be considerable, allowing him and his family to maintain a prominent international lifestyle, while enabling him to donate generously to various charities.

Rostropovich remained in the public eye throughout the 1980s, touring widely, campaigning incessantly for humanitarian causes and artistic freedom, and aiding exiled fellow Soviet artists. In 1990 he made a triumphal return to his former homeland with the National Symphony Orchestra, conducting concerts in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) and Moscow; in response, the Soviet legislature restored his and his wifes citizenship. The depth of Rostropovichs commitment to political freedom was graphically demonstrated in August 1991 when, during an attempted military coup against the democratic government, he flew to Moscow to stand with other protestors as a human shield defending the Russian Parliament building. In the mid 1990s, he continued to be prominent in raising funds to improve childrens health care in the former Soviet Union, a favorite cause of his.

In the course of a career spanning over 50 years, Rostropovichs talents have won considerable recognition and praise. He has been accorded over 60 different awards from 18 nations, the most notable being the French Legion of Honor, the Order of the British Empire, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award the United States gives to non-citizens. He also holds honorary doctorates from over 30 universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton in the United States, and Cambridge and Oxford in England. Among the innumerable music awards he has received are the Albert Schweitzer Music Award, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, the Polar Music Prize, and the Classic CD award. A number of his albums have received Grammy nominations and his complete discography includes well over 100 recordings on every major classical label.

But the real tribute to Rostropovichs talent, as he would be the first to admit, is expressed in a more intangible and indefinable form, in an acute awareness of the self as a part of a greater and connected whole that flows from the interaction between a master performer and his enthralled audience. A self-described apostle of music, Rostropovich has a unique ability to share his passions with others, while maintaining an unpretentious attitude. His music is the ultimate expression of an inherently democratic and humanitarian outlook on life. Susan Jacopy of the New York Times perhaps evoked this best when she wrote of a Rostropovich performance, He makes the music his own with a joy and a passion that enter the flesh and spirit of his listeners; at the end of a Rostropovich concert, the music belongs to the audience as well as the artist.

Selected Discography

Sonata, Op. 119, Monitor, 1958.

Chancons Russes, No. 2, Monitor, 1961.

Souvenir of Florence: Sextet for Strings, Op. 70, Monitor, 1961.

Cello Suites 1 & 2, London, 1962.

Quintet in C major, op. 163, ABC Records, 1963.

Sonaten fur Klavier und Violoncello, Philips, 1964.

Galina Vishnevskaya sings Moussorgsky, Philips, 1965.

Cello Concerto in B Minor, op. 104, Monitor, 1966.

Konzert fur Violoncello und Orchester h-moll op. 104, Deutsche Grammophon, 1969.

Cello Sonata in A, Op. 36, Parnassus, 1969.

Sonata in F, Op. 6, EMI, 1975.

Tosca, Deutsche Grammophon, 1976.

Concert of the Century, Sony Classical, 1976.

Schelomo: Hebrew Rhapsody, Angel, 1977.

Manfred Symphony, Op. 58, Angel, 1977.

Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, Angel, 1978.

Symphony No. 9 in E minor: From The New World Op. 95, Angel, 1979.

Ballet Suites : Swan Lake, Polydor International, 1979.

Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Angel, 1980.

Sonate fur Klavier und Violoncello, Op. 65, Deutsche Grammophon, 1981.

WOJahre, Berliner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Grammophon, 1982.

Symphony No. 5, Deutsche Grammophon, 1983.

Yolanta, Erato, 1986.

Concerto No. 2 pour Violoncelle, Erato, 1987.

Concerto pour Violoncelle et Orchestre Opus 104 en si mineur: Opus 33, Erato, 1987.

Vepres: Op. 37, Erato, 1987.

Symphony RiverRun, Delos, 1988.

Symphony No. 4, Erato, 1988.

Guerre etPaix, Erato, 1988.

Die Streichtrios: The String Trios, Deutsche Grammophon, 1989.

Symphonie No. 13 Op. 113: Babi Yar, Erato, 1989.

Three Trios for Flute, Violin & Cello, Sony Classical, 1990.

Boris Godunov, Erato, 1991

Symphonie No. 1, Op. 13, Deutsche Grammophon, 1991.

Return to Russia, Sony Classical, 1991.

Melodies & Romances, Erato, 1991.

Symphony No. 14, Melodiya, 1991.

Alexander Nevsky, Sony Classical, 1992.

Life with an Idiot, Sony Classical, 1992.

Miniatures and Transcriptions, Melodiya, 1992.

Streichquintett D 956, Deutsche Grammophon, 1992.

Sonatas for Cello and Piano, Melodiya, 1992.

Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra, Melodiya, 1992.

Cello Concertos, Teldec, 1993.

The Young Rostropovich: Rare Recordings from 1950/1952 Years, Palladio, 1993.

The Poets Echo, London, 1993.

Works for Piano and Cello, Philips, 1994.

Bach: Cello Suites, EMI Classics, 1995.


Billboard, May 20, 1995.

CD Review, My 1995.

Chicago Tribune, May 1, 1990.

Classic CD, June 1995.

Gramophone, June 1995.

New York Times, April 18, 1976.

Pulse! September 1992.

Strings, July/August 1993.

Time Magazine, October 24, 1977.

USA Today, June 13, 1995.

Additional information for this profile was provided by Columbia Artists Management, Wilford Division, New York, NY, and EMI Records, 1995.

Daniel Hodges

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich

views updated May 23 2018

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.

Further Reading

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. □

Rostropovich, Mstislav

views updated Jun 08 2018


Born: Baku, Azerbaijan, 27 March 1927

Genre: Classical

Mstislav Rostropovich is not only a great musician and a great artist, he is also one of the leading cultural voices of the twentieth century. A preeminent cellist, he has been the inspiration for and champion of dozens of major works for his instrument by some of the leading composers of his day. As a conductor, he has led many of the world's leading orchestras and served as music director of Washington, D.C.'s National Symphony. As an artist he has been an outspoken champion of cultural causes and human rights.

Rostropovich began studying the piano at the age of four with his mother, then added the cello, studying with his father Leopold, who had been a student of Pablo Casals in Paris, France. He enrolled in the Central Music School in Moscow, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and made his public debut at age thirteen performing the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto. He continued at the famed Moscow Conservatory, where he added conducting to his studies. He studied composition with Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich, and also met and befriended Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.

As a wave of repression hit, Prokofiev and Shostakovich were banned from the conservatory and the country's musical life. But Rostropovich stayed loyal, helping Prokofiev work on his cello concerto and becoming close friends with Shostakovich. Over the next several years, Rostropovichconsidered a rising star by the Soviet regimetoured extensively as a cellist, also making his debut as a conductor in Gorky in 1961, conducting Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5.

In 1955 he married star Bolshoi soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who was a rising star, beginning not only a personal relationship but a major musical partnership as well. Rostropovich has frequently accompanied Vishnevskaya on the piano. Through the 1960s, the couple lived next door to Shostakovich in Moscow. In 1967 Rostropovich met dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and in 1969, when Rostropovich discovered his new friend in difficult circumstances, invited him to move in. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 and the Soviet authorities pressured Rostropovich to evict the writer. Instead, Rostropovich wrote an open letter to the press, protesting, and overnight his stellar career was shut down.

New Start in the West

After Solzhenitsyn's arrest and expulsion from the USSR in 1974, Rostropovich applied to leave the country
and settled in Paris, where the family heard in 1978 that their Soviet citizenships had been revoked. Being banished was not an impediment to either Rostropovich's or Vishnevskaya's career. Their reputations had preceded them and they were treated as major artists in the West, invited to perform in the world's great concert halls and becoming bigger stars than they had been at home.

Rostropovich's musicianship is marked by its warm-hearted intensity, commanding tone, and formidable technique. He is a player who strongly resonates with the music he performs, and his musical appetite is large and inclusive. He has performed the entire cello repertoire and has been personally responsible for considerably expanding it through his numerous commissions from composers.

A champion of the music of colleagues, he has premiered numerous important additions to the cello repertoire. Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Witold Lutoslawski, Aram Khachaturian, James MacMillan, and others have written cello works for him, and he has premiered numerous other pieces. His repertoire includes some fifty cello concertos.

As a conductor, Rostropovich also tirelessly promoted the work of his friends. He gave the premiere of the original version of Prokofiev's opera War and Peace and with his long association with the London Symphony, Rostropovich mounted major festivals dedicated to the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten. In 1977 he was appointed music director of Washington, D.C.'s National Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for seventeen seasons.

In 1990, seventeen years after leaving the Soviet Union, he led the National Symphony on an historic tour of Russia. The following year, during an attempted coup in August at the Russian Parliament, he flew to Moscow to be in the Parliament building in support of his friend, Russian President Boris Yeltsin. He was hailed as a national hero, and though he has been offered back his citizenship by the new Russian government, he has declined, preferring to travel on a Swiss visa.

After stepping down as music director of National Symphony in 1994, he became the orchestra's conductor emeritus, and he has continued to conduct there regularly. Released from his duties with the orchestra, he stepped up his cello career, producing a series of well-regarded recordings. His 1995 recording of Bach's solo Cello Suites is a landmark, selling more than 250,000 copies.

Rostropovich is one of the most decorated musicians alive today: He holds more than forty honorary degrees and has received 130 major awards from thirty countries, including the Lenin and Stalin Prizes, the French Legion of Honor, membership in the Academy of Arts of the French Institute, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States, a Kennedy Center Honor, and the International League of Human Rights Award. His ability to express himself both through his music and as a "citizen of the world" make him one of the most important artists of his time.


Bach: Cello Suites 16 (EMI, 1995). With David Oistrakh: Brahms: Double Concerto (Concerto in A Minor for Violin and Cello) (EMI, 1970). With Rudolf Serkin: Brahms: Sonata for Cello and Piano in E Minor, Op. 38 and Sonata in F, Op. 99 (Deutsche Gramophon, 1980).


M. Rostropovich and G. Vishnevskaya, Russia, Music, and Liberty: Conversations with Claude Samuel (New York, 1995).

douglas mclennan

Rostropovich, Mstislav

views updated May 23 2018

Rostropovich, Mstislav

Born Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, March 27, 1927, in Baku, Soviet Union; died of intestinal cancer, April 27, 2007, in Moscow, Russia. Cellist, pianist, and conductor. Russian cellist Mstislav Ros-tropovich was one of leading luminaries in twentieth-century classical music. Renowned for his virtuosity on the cello, Rostropovich played with some of the world’s top orchestras and later in life conducted a few of them, too. He was also an out-spoken figure during the repressive totalitarian era of Soviet history, who risked his livelihood and indeed his own life to speak out against injustice.

Born in 1927, Rostropovich—called “Slava” by his friends and family—was born in the Azerbaijani city of Baku into a musically gifted family. His mother, Sofia, was a pianist, and her mother had been director of a music school; on his father’s side, Rostropovich was a third-generation cellist, taking up the instrument himself at the age of ten after some training on the piano. Rostropovich’s talents were nurtured enough to allow him to make his professional debut with an orchestra at the age of 13. From 1943 to 1948 he studied at the Moscow Conservatory, and began writing his own compositions with two of his teachers, Dmitiri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev.

In 1955, Rostropovich married Galina Vishnevskaya, a soprano, and the pair gave well-attended and critically acclaimed concert recitals. His fame reached international proportions, and he was allowed to travel abroad for performances in New York City and London, which required a certain compliance with official Soviet propaganda; however, he ran afoul of authorities in the late 1960s when he gave his support to dissident writer Alexander Solzhen-itsyn, who wrote of the Soviet labor camp system that warehoused thousands of political dissidents in The Gulag Archipelago and other works. Rostropov-ich and his wife allowed Solzhenitsyn to stay at their dacha, or country vacation cottage, for four years. Frustrated by the treatment of Solzhenitsyn— who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970—Rostropovich wrote an open letter to Pravda, the official state newspaper. He questioned the government’s interference in the arts, wondering “why in our literature and art so often people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word?” New York Times writer Allan Kozinn quoted him as writing in the letter, which was not published but brought Rostropovich and his wife years of personal trouble.

Rostropovich was banned from traveling abroad for the next several years, and found that even his Soviet concert engagements were restricted. Finally, in 1974, he and Vishnevskaya were allowed to travel abroad, but comments he made during the trip prompted Soviet officials to revoke their citizenship. The couple spent the next several years in exile in the West, traveling on special Swiss documents because they were technically stateless persons. From 1977 to 1994, he served as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C., and was an occasional guest conductor with the London Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras.

The end of the Soviet Union, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, began the process of homecoming for Rostropovich and his wife, and he became a staunch supporter of Russia’s first post Communist leader, Boris Yeltsin. The return to his homeland was even the subject of a documentary film, Soldiers of Music: Rostropovich Returns to Russia. He and his wife established the Rostropovich Foundation, which provided medical care to children, and he continued to record essential works from the classical repertoire, with his cello interpretations of Bach and Dvorak considered to be definitive recordings of each.

Rostropovich retired from performing in public with his cello in 2005. Two years later, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin honored an 80year-old Rostrop-ovich in a special birthday ceremony with the Order of Service to the Fatherland medal. He died a month later, on April 27, 2007, at a Moscow hospital, after a long battle with intestinal cancer. Survivors include Vishnevskaya and their daughters, Olga and Elena. In the world of classical music, Rostropovich was a towering figure, respected as much for his talent as for his moral fortitude. He once testified before the U.S. Senate on National Endowment for the Arts, and commented on controversies over funding for the arts. “I have been a victim of censorship—both as a musician and as a person,” Los Angeles Times writer Chris Pasles quoted him as saying. “The United States, with its great number of diverse ethnic and religious groups, must preserve in an untouchable state the right of each person to express himself.” Sources: Chicago Tribune, April 28, 2007, sec. 3, p. 7; Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2007, p. B12; New York Times, April 28, 2007, p. A1, p. A13.

—Carol Brennan

Rostropovich, Mstislav (Leopoldovich)

views updated May 14 2018

Rostropovich, Mstislav (Leopoldovich) (b Baku, 1927). Russ. cellist, pianist, and conductor. Début 1942. Won Prague int. comp. 1950. Western début, Florence 1951. Prof. of vc., Moscow Cons. from 1956 and Leningrad Cons. from 1961. One of great cellists of his day, for whom Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Britten (all of whom were his friends) wrote works. Also gave of works by Bliss, Walton, Lutosławski, Panufnik, Dutilleux, and Saxton. Pf. accompanist to his wife, the sop. Galina Vishnevskaya. London début 1956. Amer. début as cellist, NY 1956. Début as cond., (concert) Gorky 1962, (opera) Moscow 1968 (Eugene Onegin); Salzburg Fest. début (cellist) 1969 (Orch. de Paris., cond. Karajan), pf. accomp. 1975. Cond. début in London 1974 (New Philharmonia). Amer. début concert cond., Washington DC 1975, and in opera at S. Francisco 1975 (Queen of Spades). Cond. Nat. SO, Washington, 1977–94. Cond. of works by Bernstein, Walton, Schnittke (opera Life with an Idiot, 1992), Penderecki, and Gubaidulina. Art. dir., Aldeburgh Fest. 1977–88. Out of favour with Soviet authorities from 1970 because of public defence of dissident novelist Solzhenitsyn and was denied exit from USSR for foreign engagements for over a year until he cond. opera in Vienna. Left USSR with wife 1974, ostensibly for 2 years, but did not return. In 1978 they were deprived of Soviet citizenship, but this was restored in 1990 and he was invited to take the Nat. SO to Russia. Hon. KBE 1987.

Rostropovich, Mstislav Leopoldovich

views updated May 29 2018

Rostropovich, Mstislav Leopoldovich (1927– ) Soviet musician, who established a reputation as one of the century's best cellists. Leading composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten dedicated works to him.