Mstislav Rostropovich, the man who forever changed the cello
Rostropovich was the most influential cellist of any era, a force of nature who inspired many of the 20th century’s greatest works.
His former pupil Elizabeth Wilson recalls his extraordinary talent, eventful life and magnetic personality
Who was Rostropovich?
Rostropovich was the most influential cellist of any era and one of the greatest cellists of all time. His legacy is astonishing: he premiered nearly 200 works in his lifetime, many commissioned by or written for him, and raised the cellistic bar with his powerful, virtuosic technique.
Why was Rostropovich important?
Rostropovich is primarily thought of as the man who changed the history of 20th-century cello playing. His physical aptitude for his chosen instrument was apparent to all who saw him play and, as the cellist himself admitted, ‘God gave me two good things: my hands and my memory.’
His large, sculpted hands were ideally suited for the cello; his fabulous memory was a gift from nature, but he trained it so that he could memorise instantly, and perform everything (new works, too) without music – his feat of learning Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 from memory in three days belongs to the annals of legend.
But hands and memory were not enough to account for the cellist’s incredible achievements. In his desire to promote the cello to the same level of popularity as the piano and violin, he cajoled and inspired composers to write for his instrument.
In learning a new work, his identification with the composer’s concept was so great that Shostakovich admitted that Rostropovich had become ‘the co-author of the works created for him.’ All this was won through a dynamic energy which fuelled a motor that seemed never to stop – he seemed to live three lives simultaneously…
When was Rostropovich born?
It all started in 1927, when Rostropovich was born in Baku, Azerbaijan. Today, the family house has been converted into a lovingly tended museum – the earliest photo on exhibit shows the infant Slava using his father’s cello case as cradle, as if his destiny as a great cellist was settled.
More like this
When did Rostropovich start playing the cello?
As a toddler, the young Slava would imitate his father’s cello-playing with two broomsticks, by the age of three he could pick out tunes on the piano and within two years had composed his first pieces. His father, Leopold Rostropovich, a brilliant musician, was aware of his son’s special talents but waited until he was eight before starting him on the cello.
The family moved from Baku to Moscow for the sake of the children’s education. Slava did not attend Moscow’s specialist music schools, but studied with his father at a civic school. He progressed rapidly, and at the age of 13 made his orchestral debut in the town of Slavyansk playing Saint-Saëns’s First Concerto.
At the start of World War II the family was evacuated to Orenburg where Leopold died suddenly in June 1942. Slava was devastated. Yet he realised that his father had already imparted all he needed for a professional career: an overall knowledge of musical literature, the ability to play the piano and compose, discipline and imagination.
When the 13-year-old Slava had expressed his desire to conduct, his father had advised him to ‘wait until you can earn the respect of fellow musicians with your cello playing.’ In fact Rostropovich was an internationally celebrated cellist when he first conducted an orchestra in 1962 (in a Shostakovich programme).
The shock of losing his beloved father forced Slava to ‘become a man at the age of 15’. He took over his father’s teaching duties (his pupils were mostly older than him), and participated in collective concerts in return for extra rations. In the spring of 1943, he returned to Moscow with his sister and Mother and enrolled at the conservatoire to study cello with Semyon Kozolupov and composition with Shebalin and Shostakovich. He finished the course in three years instead of five, graduating as gold medallist. It was then that he formed the lifetime habit of working not only by day but by night, somehow managing on three hours’ sleep.
Even before graduating, Rostropovich won the prestigious All Union Competition of Performers. His early success was confirmed by further victories at cello competitions in Budapest and Prague. Already from the start of his performing career, Rostropovich set himself a series of tasks and projects. His stated aims to win popularity for the cello and to create a new repertoire for it turned out to be a lifetime’s undertaking.
Rostropovich and the Soviet composers
Slava’s early contact with Shostakovich and Prokofiev made him more aware than ever of the importance of artistic innovation. ‘What were cellists doing in Mozart’s time?’, he often asked, ‘They were sleeping! They should have been pestering Wolfgang to write for our instrument!’
So, not wanting to be accused of sleeping himself, Slava set about convincing the Soviet Union’s best composers to compose for cello. The first work written for him, at the age of 21, was Myaskovsky’s Cello Sonata No. 2. Prokofiev attended the premiere, and the following year he too wrote a cello sonata, which he asked Rostropovich to perform with pianist Sviatoslav Richter.
All this coincided with Russia’s campaign against formalism in music, which brought disgrace to both Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Slava’s sense of outrage led him to swear loyalty to his life-long heroes, although he didn’t escape criticism himself and was censured for refusing to play in concerts for the military in East Germany.
Prokofiev now went on to revise his 1938 cello concerto, and invited Slava to help him. The result was the Concerto No. 2, which was given its premiere by Rostropovich in 1952 with Richter conducting (his only such foray away from the piano). Further revisions led to the final version, the Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra, premiered only after Prokofiev’s death.
It was the first great masterpiece for cello and orchestra written for Rostropovich, who believed it started a kind of chain reaction. Partly under the influence of Prokofiev’s work, Shostakovich wrote his Cello Concerto No. 1 in 1959 and went on to compose five more works for Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.
In 1960, at the London premiere of the First Cello Concerto, Shostakovich introduced Rostropovich to Benjamin Britten. A close friendship and artistic partnership ensued, which resulted in Britten composing five splendid works for cello, not without some playful bullying on Slava’s side. The Cello Sonata was premiered at the 1961 Aldeburgh Festival, which in turn inspired Rostropovich to found the first music festival in the Soviet Union, in 1964 in the town of Gorky.
What was Rostropovich like as a person?
Rostropovich was among the brilliant Soviet artists (including pianist Emil Gilels and violinist David Oistrakh) who made spectacular debuts in the West in 1955-56 as a result of the new policy of cultural exchange. But he differed from the others: Slava was more extrovert and exuberant and, crucially, had not grown up during the Stalinist Terror.
With humour, charm, spontaneity and daring, he quickly learnt how to play the system, confounding the bureaucrats and getting away with it. On one occasion, he dictated a list of non-existent cello pieces to an unsuspecting ministry of culture official. The resulting programmes were forwarded to the Hurok Agency for his next US concert tour: sonatas for cello by Mozart and Scriabin, the Seventh and Eighth Bach suites and so on. When the ruse was uncovered, the saying went around Moscow that Rostropovich had ridden over the ministry like a tank.
On another occasion, Ekaterina Furtseva, the Soviet minister of culture, informed Oistrakh, Gilels and Rostropovich that, as heads of their respective juries for the 1970 Tchaikovsky competition, they must ensure that winners were all Soviet instrumentalists. ‘But why?’ asked Rostropovich feigning innocence. Furtseva rebuked him. ‘It is the centenary of Ilych’s [Vladimir Ilyich Lenin] birth.’ ‘Oh in that case,’ replied Slava, ‘why don’t you postpone the whole thing until next year and have a fair competition?’
But Rostropovich demonstrated his patriotism in other ways. He heavily promoted Soviet music at home, and in 1958 and ’59 performed a series of concerts of new cello works by Soviet composers. In the 1963-64 season he put on a cycle of 11 concerts in Moscow and Leningrad performing over 40 cello concertos including premieres of works by Khachaturian, Sauguet and Britten (the Cello Symphony).
With equal enthusiasm he undertook tours ‘for the people’ in the Altai Steppe, up the Yenisei river and in Yakutia, often to places accessible only by boat or sledge. He recounted how once in Dzomgi, a small town on the Amur river, he played for an audience of five. Normally, concerts attended by fewer than ten people were automatically cancelled, but on discovering that his audience was made up of former Gulag inmates who had walked two days to come and hear him, he unhesitatingly went on with the performance.
Rostropovich enthusiastically promoted his chosen instrument by founding cello clubs and cello orchestras throughout the Soviet Union. He insisted that the cello be included as a category at the Tchaikovsky competition, and later founded an important cello competition in France which still bears his name.
But there was much more to Slava than just the cello. His activities were multifarious, and he himself would joke, ‘when I am tired of playing the cello I accompany my wife on the piano, and when I tire of that I teach.
’ In fact, he regularly devoted time to his class at the Moscow Conservatoire (and later in Leningrad as well). I myself spent six years in his Moscow class – it was a test of one’s personality as much as of instrumental skill. Many tears flowed but were outweighed by the artistic inspiration and musical stimulation we received.
Rostropovich was the most demanding of taskmasters, expecting students to learn a concerto in a couple of days. He was strictest of all with his daughter, Olga, and on one occasion, when he caught her reading a book instead of practising, he chased her down the road brandishing her cello like a sword; imminent punishment was only prevented by the fortuitous intervention of Shostakovich, who happened to be passing.
When did Rostropovich go into exile and move to the West?
Behind the brilliance and charisma with which Rostropovich captivated his audiences lay a deeply humane vision of the world. He had the courage to make difficult decisions even if they jeopardised his career and family.
His disillusionment with the Soviet system reached a peak with the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Rostropovich preferred actions to words and when, in 1969, the persecuted writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn found himself with nowhere to live, he provided him with a home where he could write undisturbed. And after Solzhenitsyn’s award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, which provoked an outcry in the Soviet press, Rostropovich wrote an open letter of support.
Punishment for such daring came in an unexpected form – a gradually enforced withdrawal from concert life. As an artist it spelt death, and Rostropovich was left with no alternative but to apply for permission to relocate to the West. I was among a small group of friends who met him at Heathrow airport in May 1974. It was a crossing of the Rubicon, which split his artistic life down the middle and saw the beginning of a 16-year exile. Homesickness was outweighed by the enormous release of energy that enabled him to reconstruct his artistic life in the West.
He arrived in London with nothing but one suitcase, two cellos and his Newfoundland dog, but within months he had established a busy career and started making money. When he bought the famous ‘Duport’ Stradivarius cello, it was with money borrowed from the music patron Paul Sacher; that he was able to pay it back within a year was a mark of his success. Rostropovich and Vishevskaya filled their Paris apartment with Russian art, creating a miniature Hermitage as well as the illusion they were back in Russia.
Rostropovich’s last years
Conducting became an ever more important aspect part of Rostropovich’s concert activity, and led to his appointment as musical director of the Washington National Symphony Orchestra. It was at the head of this orchestra that he made a triumphant return to Russia in February 1990.
Only a year before, he had celebrated the demise of the Soviet empire when he went to play in front of the Berlin Wall as it literally crumbled behind him. Similarly, when new-found democracy in Russia came under threat in 1991, he flew to Moscow to lend moral support to Boris Yeltsin.
Naturally, Rostropovich never forgot the cello and continued commissioning new concertos; by the end of his career he could boast of having premiered over 100 works for cello. And he maintained his interest in young musicians by giving countless masterclasses. Increasingly his name became associated with Russian repertoire, and his authoritative interpretations of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich are still available in definitive recordings, often from live performances.
During the last 15 years of his life, Rostropovich devoted more and more time to his charitable foundations in Russia, aiming to help sick children and support young musical talent. Whenever he heard of any suffering, his response was immediate; politics played no role, and he gave concerts to raise money for victims of the earthquake in Armenia while also visiting Azeri refugees evicted from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh. He was often to be found at the scene of disaster, distributing both comfort and money, as he did in 2004 when he flew to Beslan in North Ossetia after the school massacre.
Rostropovich once confessed, with genuine humility, ‘I have never achieved more than half of my ideal in my music making’. But his achievements were considerable, and were governed by a far-sighted idealism – whether in his art or in his charitable work. When, towards the end of his life, Rostropovich told me, ‘I am fortunate that through my musical gifts I can help people’, these were no idle words.
When did Rostropovich die?
Rostropovich, who died aged 80 on 27 April 2007, would have been happy to be remembered as much for his humanity as for the brilliance of his cello-playing.
Rostropovich's Best recordings
Dutilleux & Lutosławski Cello Concertos
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); Orchestre de Paris/Serge Baudo, Witold Lutosławski
Warner 567 8672
Rostropovich excels in two concertos written for him, beguiling in the mysterious soundworld of the Dutilleux and thrilling in the Lutosławski.
Dvoπák Cello Concerto
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
DG 447 4132
Rostropovich recorded Dvoπák’s Concerto several times. This superb version with Karajan followed soon after his dramatic, and historic, BBC Proms performance in 1968.
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1
Rostropovich (cello); Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Sony Classical 517 1892
In arguably the most famous concerto written for him, not to mention one of the most fiendishly difficult, Rostropovich delivers a performance of extraordinary passion.
Britten Cello Symphony
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello); New Philharmonia Orchestra/Benjamin Britten
Decca E425 1002
Britten himself conducts the dark and often deeply unsettling work that he wrote for his great Russian friend in 1963.
Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante
Mstislav Rostropovich; Royal Philharmonic/Malcolm Sargent
Warner 380 0132
Written for a young Rostropovich by a composer in failing health and under the suspicion of the authorities, the cellist is unmatched in reflecting the piece’s bleak origins.