Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, Russian-born cellist and conductor, was a major figure of the 20th century. A brilliant performer who commissioned numerous contemporary works, Rostropovich was also politically engaged in defending freedom of expression.
Born into a family of musicians in Baku (Azerbaijan), Mstislav Rostropovich was introduced to the piano at a very early age by his mother, then to the cello, at the age of 8, by his father, himself a cellist. In 1932, the whole family moved to Moscow and in 1941, Mstislav Rostropovich entered the Moscow Conservatory. His teachers included Dmitri Shostakovich, who taught orchestration, and he met Sergei Prokofiev.
Even in his student days, his playing fascinated audiences wherever he performed. He gave several chamber music concerts with such prestigious partners as Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels and Leonid Kogan.
In 1955, he married Galina Vishnevskaya, a soprano at the Bolshoi Theatre. Mstislav Rostropovich accompanied her at the piano for concerts and recordings.
His international career began in 1970, after he had earlier won the most prestigious competitions: first prize at the international Music Awards of Prague and Budapest. In 1951, he was awarded the highest distinction in his country: the Stalin Prize.
He began mixing with Soviet composers and would be the dedicatee of numerous contemporary scores. One of the best-known is Serge Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto (also known as the Sinfonia Concertante). He became an influential ambassador of Soviet music in the West and continued to inspire composers in every country to write for the cello.
In 1960, Benjamin Britten composed for his commissioner and friend a Cello Symphony, a Sonata for Cello and Piano and three Suites for Solo Cello. A little later, between 1967 and 1970, Henri Dutilleux wrote a concerto that would become a fixture in all cellists' repertoires: Tout un monde lointain.
Rostropovich was keenly interested in opera and in 1967 conducted Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi, his first concert as conductor.
In 1970, at the height of his glory, Mstislav Rostropovich took the defence of political dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and gave him shelter. The consequences were immediate: his performing career was brought to an abrupt halt. Forced into exile with his family, he initially settled in the United States.
In 1977, he was appointed musical director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, a position he held for 25 years. That same year, Mstislav Rostropovich created the Mstislav Rostropovich International Cello Competition in Paris. The competition, designed for the rising generation of musicians, was chaired by a prestigious jury made up of Luciano Berio, Henri Dutilleux, Raya Garbousova, Witold Lutoslawski, Pierre Penassou and Iannis Xenakis. The first prize was awarded to the young French cellist, Frédéric Lodéon.
In 1978, while in Paris, he learnt from the media that he had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship for "acts harmful to the prestige of the Soviet Union" and became stateless.
When the Berlin Wall came down on 9 November 1989, Mstislav Rostropovich caught a plane that very evening to give an impromptu concert the next day. Before surprised onlookers, he played Bach "to thank God for having performed a miracle like this". Footage of this concert in front of the wall being dismantled was viewed around the world and remains one of the symbols of this history-making event.
His Russian citizenship was reinstated in 1990 by a decree issued by Mikhail Gorbachev, and Rostropovich divided his time between Moscow, the United States, Switzerland and France.
Mstislav Rostropovich died on 27 April 2007 in Moscow after a long illness. He was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery, where his friends Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev are also buried.
- Landmark dates in the life of Rostropovich
1951 Stalin Prize
1970 Forced into exile with his entire family
1989 Plays in front of the Berlin Wall, the day after its fall
1990 Regained his Russian citizenship
- Key recordings by Rostropovich
Mstislav Rostropovich – The Complete Decca Recordings
5 CD boxed set
DECCA 0289 478 3577
Rostropovich – Mastercellist
Legendary recordings 1956-78
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0289 471 6202 5
Henri Dutilleux: Tout un monde lointain / Lutoslawski: Cello Concerto
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello / Orchestre de Paris / Serge Baudo, conductor
EMI Classics 7243 5 67867 2 1
Shostakovitch: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Galina Vishnevskaya (Katerina) Nicolai Gedda (Sergey) / London Philharmonic Orchestra / Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor
EMI – 7243 5 67776 2 0