by Dr. Luis Dias
On 27 April 2007 came the sad news from Moscow that one of the brightest luminaries of the music world, Mstislav Rostropovich, had passed away at the age of 80 after a battle with intestinal cancer.
I had the good fortune to play for this great man in Goa, India, at a masterclass in 1988. I was in my final year MBBS at the time. His visit to India created a veritable stir in Indian musical circles. I know of at least one eager cellist who shadowed Rostropovich on his concert itinerary, attending every recital of his, in Mumbai, Goa, Delhi & Calcutta.
When it was announced that he would take the time during his stay in Goa to listen to the local talent and conduct a masterclass, we were ecstatic. I remember I had chosen the first movement of Bach’s sonata in G minor for solo violin. I couldn’t sleep the nights before that day, so nervous was I at the prospect of playing before someone larger than life.
But my apprehensions were unfounded, as he was such a gentle, unassuming man. He greeted us in typical Russian fashion, with a bear hug and a kiss on either cheek, and then got us started. He listened patiently to each of us and then offered his insight & suggestions. He taught us the concept of the “golden arch” in phrasing, how each musical phrase has its own pinnacle, and the importance of studying a piece architecturally as it were, before proceeding to play it.
His remark at the end of my playing, “You have talent” has been a shot in the arm ever since.
Since then, I have had the privilege of hearing him play & watching him conduct in London on several occasions.
Mstislav Rostropovich (or Slava, as he was affectionately known) was born on March 27, 1927 in Baku, present-day Azerbaijan. His mother was an accomplished pianist, and his father Leopold a distinguished cellist who had studied with Pablo Casals.
He entered the Moscow Conservatory aged sixteen, and his career from then on can only be described as meteoric. He studied composition there with Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. He made his cello debut in 1940 and conducting debut in 1961 in Russia.
He was widely regarded as the greatest cellist of our time, a worthy successor to Pablo Casals. He has the rare distinction of having works commissioned for him by the most distinguished composers of our time, notable among them his teachers Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and also Benjamin Britten, Khachaturian, Messiaen, Bernstein, Lutoslawski, Penderecki and Dutilleux. I was amazed to learn that he has premiered no less than 224 new works in his lifetime, such was his commitment to new music.
As conductor, he was at the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, USA for 17 years. He has conducted major orchestras all over the world, notably the London Symphony Orchestra with whom he has had several recordings.
He was the founder of several music festivals, including the Aldeburgh festival and the Rostropovich festival.
He was an outspoken champion of human rights, and came into conflict with the Soviet authorities in his defence of his teachers Prokofiev and Shostakovich when they were being officially denounced by the Stalin regime. Later in the 1970s he and his wife, the Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, sheltered dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in their dacha.
He wrote an open letter to the Soviet authorities under Brezhnev expressing his solidarity with the writer. “Explain to me please, why in our literature and art (that) so often, people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word?… I know that after my letter there will be undoubtedly an ‘opinion’ about me, but I am not afraid of it. I openly say what I think. Talent, of which we are proud, must not be submitted to the assaults of the past.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly the letter went unpublished. He and his wife paid a heavy price for their perceived insubordination, with the cancellation of concerts, foreign tours, and recording projects. They fled to Paris in 1974 with their two daughters. In 1978, their Soviet citizenship was revoked.
In 1989, he triumphantly played Bach cello suites amidst the rubble of the torn-down Berlin Wall. His citizenship was restored the following year.
But the couple’s passion for humanity did not wane after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, they set up the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation to help to improve the health care of children in former Soviet lands.
That same year, when hard-line Communists attempted a coup against the Gorbachev regime, he rushed back to Moscow without a visa and joined protesters (including Boris Yeltsin who himself passed away six days prior to Rostropovich) in the Russian parliament building in a vigil for several days.
Rostropovich received several awards from across the globe in recognition of his contribution to music and humanity, including a knighthood conferred on him by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987, on his 60th birthday.
His last public appearance was at his 80th birthday celebrations on 27 March 2007 at the Kremlin. “I feel myself the happiest man in the world,” he said. “I will be even more happy if this evening will be pleasant for you.”
He was interred in Moscow at Novodevichy cemetery, where the graves of his teachers Prokofiev and Shostakovich also lie.
He is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1955, and their daughters Olga and Elena.