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

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. Rostropovich's 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, Rostropovich's 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 father's pupil. In 1934 the Rostropovich family moved to Moscow so that the children could receive the best possible musical instruction (Rostropovich's older sister Veronica later became a talented violinist who played with the Moscow Philharmonic.)

Rostropovich's childhood and adolescence in Moscow were marked by harsh poverty, as his family scraped out a meager existence on Leopold Rostropovich's salary as a musician while sharing a small apartment with another family. With the beginning of World War II, 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 Rostropovich's 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 back on these difficult years in a 1977 interview in Harvard Magazine, he admitted they had given "a tremendous drive to my 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 father's 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 comfort for his. As he affirmed in a New York Times article, "With all of my art, I don't believe I have begun to pay people back, not even for those blankets."

At the war's 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 Party's 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 Rostropovich's 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, Rostropovich's 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 Union's highest honor,) and was named as a People's 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 father's footsteps as musicians.

What struck Rostropovich's 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 instrument's 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 latter's political unpopularity.

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 by-product of Rostropovich's 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 the official 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.

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, Rostropovich's 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 artistic freedom was available to all. 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, Rostropovich's 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 a wave of enthusiasm aroused by his performance, he was hired as the orchestra's Music Director; he would retain the position until 1994, considerably elevating the National Symphony's artistic and public profile. Rostropovich's 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 wife's citizenship. The depth of Rostropovich's 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 children's health care in the former Soviet Union, a favorite cause of his.

In the course of a career spanning over 50 years, Rostropovich's 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 Rostropovich's 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."

by Daniel Hodges

Mstislav Rostropovich's Career

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).

Mstislav Rostropovich's Awards

Polar Music Prize; Praemium Imperiale 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.; People's Artist of the U.S.S.R.; Youth Festival of Prague--First Prize; Youth Festival of Budapest--First Prize.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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