The Great Mstislav Rostropovich
Since the cultural revolution that blossomed in the early part of the 20th century Russia has been famous for it’s abundance of talent in the music performance world, consistently turning out out some of the best players of all time. Instead of writing my usual entry about one of the great Russian composers I dedicate this unit to one of my personal heroes, the extraordinary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (Мстисла́в Леопо́льдович Ростропо́вич or “Slava” for short).
Born in Baku on March 27th, 1927, Rostropovich grew up in a household of two accomplished performers (his mother, Sofiya Nikolaevna Fedotova, and his father, Leopold Vitoldovich Rostropovich). At the ripe age of four years old he began piano lessons with his mother, and at age 10 he began the cello with his father (who was a former student of famous cellist Pablo Casals). At sixteen her entered the Moscow Conservatory as a student of cello, piano, conducting, AND composition. It was during this time that a lifetime relationship with his mentor, Dimitry Shostakovitch, began (on October 4th, 1959 Slava premiered Shosty’s 1st Cello Concerto having memorized it in four short days). In 1950 he was awarded the Stalin Prize (the highest distinction in the Soviet Union) and was actively pursuing his performance career as well as his teaching career at the Moscow Conservatory. In 1955 he married Galina Vishnevskaya who was a Soprano in the Bolshoi theater.
Slava had always been an unabashed speaker for the cause of free speech and democracy and as a result it was not long before he fell out of favor with the Soviet party. Following the 1948 Decree against the majority of the era’s composers and the subsequent dismissal of Shostakovitch from his teaching post, he dropped out of the Moscow Conservatory in protest. By 1970 he and his wife were restricted from foreign touring and Slava was forced to go on a recital tour of Siberia. Eventually, his family moved to the States in 1974 and his citizenship was formally revoked in the form of exile (he did not return the Russia until 1990). During his time in America, Rostropovich broadened his musical career as conductor of the National Symphony in Washington D.C. along side his frequent performances.
Tragically, Rostropovich’s health began a fast decline in 2006 with what began as an aggravated ulcer. Not long after his meeting with Vladmir Putin to discuss the Kremlin’s celebration of his 80th birthday, he died on intestinal cancer on April 27, 2007. He was buried in the Novodevichy cemetery where his friend, Boris Yeltsin, had been buried four days earlier.
During his lifetime Slava served as an inspiration to so many of the worlds greatest cellists. The young Jacquline Du pre studied with him when he declared her to be the only cellist of the younger generation with the talent to surpass his own accomplishments. Julian Lloyd Webber professes in his memoirs that it was none other than Rostropovich’s performance at the British Proms that prompted him to begin his own successful career as a solo cellist. From Yo yo Ma to the youngest players in the youth orchestra he is revered for his unforgettable performances of the most difficult in cello repertoire. There is no question of his immeasurable impact on the world of music (RIP Rostropovich).