Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich was born in Baku, USSR on March 27, 1927. His first name means "avenged glory"; he is familiarly known by the root of the name, "Slava," which means "glory." His father, Leopold, was an excellent cellist, and after 1931, a teacher at the Gnesin Institute, Moscow after attending the Moscow Conservatory. Slava's mother was an accomplished pianist. The family moved to Moscow in 1931; Slava had already begun cello studies with his father and continued them there. His first public appearance was at eight years of age. In 1939, he entered the Central Music School, studying there until 1941. He then entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1943 and studied cello with Semyon Kozolupov and composition with Vissaryon Shebalin and Dmitri Shostakovich, graduating with highest distinction in 1948. After that he became a musical secretary to Sergei Prokofiev and developed a warm relationship with the ailing composer. It was due to Rostropovich's presence that Prokofiev rewrote his earlier Cello Concerto in E Minor, transforming it into a much more imposing work, the Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra, Op. 125; his late sonata for cello and piano, and began work on a Concertino for cello and orchestra, which the composer did not finish. It was completed by Rostropovich and Dmitri Kabalevesky.
Rostropovich began a major career in the Warsaw Pact countries. He won the International Competition for Cellists in Prague in 1950 and other major awards. He began to be heard throughout the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. He made his first appearance in the West in Florence in 1951, and his international career continued to grow. On a social occasion he met Galina Vishnevskaya, one of the leading new sopranos of the Bolshoi Theater of Moscow, proclaimed that he had fallen in love with her at first sight, and within a very few days had convinced her to marry him, proposing in Prague while they were both on tour there. In her engaging autobiography she admits that she did not really know who he was and was somewhat frightened by his intensity; she was also wary of men at the time since she was being sexually harassed by Nikolai Bulganin, President of the U.S.S.R., who in his efforts to make her his mistress had made veiled threats that he would make things difficult for anyone else she became involved with. There was, indeed, a brief effort to pressure Rostropovich, but this evaporated as Bulganin's position in the government became more and more as a mere appendage to that of the real power, Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Vishnevskaya wrote in her autobiography that she believes their marriage survived because neither had seen the other in performance; they fell in love with each other as people rather than with their partners' stage image.
Bulganin did make good on some of his threats, one of which was to cancel an upcoming 1956 tour of the West. It was reinstated at the last minute, however, and proved to be an essential event on the development of Rostropovich's career. He appeared in London at the Festival Hall in March 1956, his first British appearance. Then he made his American debut at Carnegie Hall, New York in April, 1956. Rostropovich was universally hailed in both cities as an exceptional musician, in fact a superstar, to use a current term which was not then in use. He had the mysterious charisma of a true star, and backed it up with phenomenal talent, technique, passion for the music, communicative ability, and instinct for the composer's message. One of the remarkable qualities of his art was the unprecedented ability to project the instrument's sound with fullness and strength in all its registers. In the warm, naturally forceful medium register he exceeded most cellist's strength of tone. But it was his handling of the extreme registers which was breathtaking. The upper register, which in most cases is weaker, became under Rostropovich's bow possessed of a heroic, tenor-like clarion quality. The lowest register, which threatens to become a muttering sound at fast tempos, remained clearly articulated, strong and solid all the way down to low "C." His intonation was unusually accurate and secure. His fluency and mastery of rapid passage work was also remarkable, even in the most difficult "thumb" positions. He had a full command of the multitude of special effects which are available on the instrument, and a wide variety of tonal color at his disposal. His performances had a firm sense of rhythm, either a heroic or passionately ardent presentation of the music, and a sure grasp of the structure and emotional logic of the composition. He had complete command of the styles of all the musical eras and national schools in the standard cello repertoire.
Composers from all over the Soviet Union immediately became interested in writing for the cello, and Rostropovich was fortunately deeply interested in new music. Among the first of the unique body of masterpieces written for him, aside from the Prokofiev works already mentioned, was the brilliant Concerto for Cello & Orchestra No. 1 in E Flat, Op. 107 by Dmitri Shostakovich, who soon became a close friend of Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. Rostropovich played the premiere performance, then set off for the West with Shostakovich to make a classic premiere recording of it with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, a performance which was made even more thrilling by the presence of Philadelphia's powerful horn soloist, Mason Jones, in the concerto's prominent part for that instrument. The recording solidified Rostropovich's reputation in the West as one of the great cellists of his time. A decade later, Shostakovich wrote another mastery cello concerto for Rostropovich.
When Rostropovich premiered the Concerto in London in 1960, this performance was attended by the composer Benjamin Britten, initiating a friendship which also resulted in the creation of several masterworks. In fact, Britten credited his hearing of the Shostakovich concerto with having rekindled his interest in instrumental music. (This is particularly interesting since it was Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk which in the '30s had ignited Britten's interest in vocal music.) For Rostropovich he wrote the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, the Sonata for Cello and Piano, and the three Suites for Cello Solo, each one a masterful addition to the repertoire of the instrument. Moreover, friendship with Rostropovich also brought about friendship with Vishnevskaya, which led to the concept of Britten's greatest work, the War Requiem, of having singers from each of the three main European powers of World War I in the piece. Moreover, Britten wrote a song cycle, "The Poet's Echo," in Russian on Pushkin texts for Vishnevskaya to sing with Rostropovich, who is also an accomplished pianist, accompanying her at the keyboard. Rostropovich recorded this song cycle with Vishnevskaya in a memorable performance, as he had already been accompanying his wife on the piano in public performances for some years. This led to his being invited to conduct; his podium debut was at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, leading a performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin with Vishnevskaya in the leading female role of Tatyana. He conducted this production again when the Bolshoi took it to Paris in December, 1969, and recorded it with the Bolshoi forces there in January, 1970. He also began conducting symphony concerts.
In 1969, he permitted Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the dissident Russian novelist, to stay at his dacha, and protested the Soviet government's treatment of the Nobel Prize winner by means of an open letter sent to Pravda. The newspaper did not publish it, but copies of it circulated in the West, to the embarrassment of the Soviet Union. The government, through its control of the musicians and composers unions as well as of all booking agencies and concert halls, exacted immediate reprisal on both Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. Their international appearance dates were canceled and their scheduled concert dates were replaced by appearances in remote and unimportant outposts of the Soviet Union. Their recording of Tosca, also made in Paris with the Bolshoi company, was vetoed by the Soviet government. Their social life dwindled to that of a few faithful friends, including Shostakovich.
Rostropovich applied to the Soviet government to permit him, his wife, and their two daughters to go abroad for two years. In 1974, this request was granted, and they left on what they knew was an open-ended exile. On their departure a tearful Shostakovich asked, "Now, who will play my music?" Rostropovich explained his reasons for asking to leave Russia, and for taking his stand for Solzhenitsyn (who was also similarly exiled at about the same time) in the Paris Russian-language newspaper La Pensee Russe, and in a letter to the New York Times. Soon after his arrival in the West he bought a new cello, a 1711 Antonio Stradivari instrument known as the "Duport" which is famous for having a scar on its body inflicted when Napoleon, having just heard Duport play it, asked to examine it and accidentally marred it with his spurs.
In July, 1974, he gave the first performance of a new cello concerto by Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian in Monte Carlo, with the composer, in a brave move, conducting. News of this event was not reported in the Soviet press. In September, 1974, he made his British conducting debut with the New Philharmonic Orchestra in London's Festival Hall. The critical consensus was that the spontaneity and innate musicality which made his cello playing magnificent was present, but that he was too flexible and spontaneous in his tempo and this caused the orchestra problems of ensemble. His American conducting debut was with the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C. in March, 1975, a performance which was so highly acclaimed that in 1977 he was appointed as the music director of that orchestra. Rostropovich and the orchestra formed a long-lasting partnership that lasted until 1997, elevating the morale and prestige of the orchestra in those years. He made his American operatic debut conducting Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades in San Francisco in 1975.
Meanwhile, Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich watched from abroad as they became "unpersons" in their homeland. The Soviet music publishing organ removed Shostakovich's dedication to him from the score of the Second Cello Concerto. When a memorial biography of Shostakovich appeared following the composer's death in 1975, neither the name of Rostropovich nor Vishnevskaya (who had sung the soprano part of Shostakovich's vocal symphony, the Fourteenth) appeared. Even the official account of Shostakovich's important trip to Philadelphia to supervise the Ormandy recording of the First Cello Concerto managed to omit Rostropovich's name, saying that the historical recording was made "by the cellist who had premiered it." The couple continued to be outspoken about Soviet abuses of freedom and publicly recounted the numerous ways in which their lives and artistic freedoms had been restricted by the Soviets. The U.S.S.R. retaliated with a low blow: the two were informed by letter in 1978 that they had been declared "ideological renegades" and were stripped of their Soviet citizenship.
In 1990, the Soviet government, then led by Mikhail Gorbachev and under his policy of "perestroika" (reconstruction) and "glasnost" (openness), admitted the shamefulness of its earlier treatment of Rostropovich. It invited them both to return to Russia for a concert tour with the National Symphony Orchestra. It also restored the Rostropoviches' citizenship. The visit, documented by a superb film called Soldiers of Music, displayed emotional reunions, a tearful visit to Shostakovich's grave, and a rapturous reception by friends and audiences. It greatly vindicated Rostropovich and his adherence to the ideals of liberty and his loyalty to his friends. Shortly thereafter, when Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin stood up to the coup plotters who attempted to depose Gorbachev and made a fortress of his Russian Parliament building, the "White House," Rostropovich returned to the Soviet Union to join Yeltsin in standing up to Soviet armed forces. Thus, he was present for the quick-moving chain of events which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the smashing of Communist power. Since then, he has appeared both in his homeland and in the West. He has made many recordings, including an acclaimed series of many Shostakovich symphonies, with the National Symphony and other orchestras. He also continued to be active on behalf of new music. In 1996, he produced his first integral set of the unaccompanied Cello Suites of Bach, an acclaimed recording expressing the culmination of a lifetime of studying and performing these masterpieces. ~ Joseph Stevenson