Mstislav Rostropovich dead at age 80
By MARTIN STEINBERG and MARIA DANILOVA, Associated Press Writers
MOSCOW - Mstislav Rostropovich, the ebullient master cellist who
courageously fought for the rights of Soviet-era dissidents and
later triumphantly played Bach suites below the crumbling Berlin
Wall, has died. He was 80.
Rostropovich died Friday in a Moscow cancer hospital, the
Itar-Tass news agency reported. Rostropovich's spokeswoman,
Natalia Dollezhal, confirmed to The Associated Press that he
had died but she did not provide other details.
Rostropovich, who resided in Paris after self-imposed exile,
suffered from intestinal cancer.
His death follows that of another towering Russian - former
President Boris N. Yeltsin, who led the country from Communism
"The passing of Mstislav Rostropovich is a bitter blow to our
culture," said author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was sheltered
by Rostropovich during his bitter fight against Soviet authorities
in the 1970s.
"He gave Russian culture worldwide fame. Farewell, beloved
friend," Solzhenitsyn said, according to ITAR-Tass.
Rostropovich was hospitalized in Paris in early February, and
after he took a turn for the worst, his family arranged for him
to be flown back to Russia, longtime manager Ronald Wilford said.
He was treated at a Moscow hospital, and received a visit on
Feb. 6 by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Seven weeks later, he was well enough to attend a celebration
at the Kremlin on his 80th birthday, but appeared frail.
"I feel myself the happiest man in the world," Rostropovich said
after slowly rising from his chair during the March 27 celebration.
"I will be even more happy if this evening will be pleasant for
Putin then presented him with a medal - the Order of Service to
A bear of a man who hugged practically anyone in sight, "Slava"
Rostropovich was considered by many to be the successor to Pablo
Casals as the world's greatest cellist. He was an effusive
rather than an intimidating maestro, a teacher who nurtured
Jacqueline du Pre among many other great cellists.
"He was the most inspiring musician that I have ever known,"
said David Finckel, the Emerson String Quartet's cellist who
studied with Rostropovich for nine years. "He had a way to
channel his energy through other people, and it was magical."
Rostropovich's opposition to the Communist leaders of his homeland
started with the denunciations of his teachers, Dmitri Shostakovich
and Sergei Prokofiev during the Stalin era.
In the early 1970s under Leonid Brezhnev's regime, Rostropovich
and his wife, the Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya,
allowed Solzhenitsyn to live in their dacha when Soviet authorities
were pressuring the author for his dissident writing.
After Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970,
Rostropovich wrote an open letter to the Soviet media protesting
the official vilification of the author.
"Explain to me please, why in our literature and art (that) so
often, people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final
word?" Rostropovich asserted in the letter that went unpublished.
"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."
The couple's fight for cultural freedom resulted in the cancellation
of concerts, foreign tours and recording projects. Finally, in
1974, they fled to Paris with their two daughters. Four years
later, their Soviet citizenship was revoked.
After arriving in the West, "he was like a little boy, laughing,
shouting, pinching himself to make sure these really were the
streets in Paris," the late violinist Yehudi Menuhin recalled
in the 1996 book "Unfinished Journey: Twenty Years Later."
Still, exile took its toll on Rostropovich's soul.
"When Leonid Brezhnev stripped us of our citizenship in 1978,
we were obliterated," Rostropovich recalled in a 1997 interview
in Strad magazine. "Russia was in my heart - in my mind. I
suffered because I knew that until the day I died, I would never
see Russia or my friends again."
Indeed, he was unable to attend Shostakovich's funeral in 1975.
But in 1989, as the Berlin Wall was being torn down, Rostropovich
showed up with his cello and played Bach cello suites amid the
rubble. The next year, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and
he made a triumphant return to Russia to perform with Washington's
National Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from
1977 to 1994.
When hardline communists tried to overthrow then-President Mikhail
Gorbachev in 1991, Rostropovich rushed back to Moscow without a
visa and spent days in the Russian parliament building to join
those protesting the coup attempt.
In his early to mid-70s, he still had the energy of a middle-age
man. He recorded the six Bach solo suites for the first time
when he was 70. Five years later, he performed 16 concerts in
11 cities in 28 days, crossing the United States twice and logging
nearly 10,000 miles.
Asked by The Associated Press during the 2002 tour about his
sleep, he replied in his accented English: "Normally ... four
hours for me (is) absolutely enough."
Finckel recalled that after the release of the Bach recordings,
Rostropovich celebrated with a feast at a hotel until 2 a.m.,
then reserved a meeting room for 4 a.m. in order to practice
Ever the bon vivant with a big smile and twinkling blue eyes,
he was known for his love of women and drink.
"He is a passionate man and he has a real lust for life, and his
marriage is stronger because of it," his daughter Olga said when
asked by the Internet Cello Society in 2003 about his love for
the five Fs - "fiddles, food, females, friends and fodka." "What
they have together is very precious and nothing can destroy it."
Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich was born March 27, 1927, in
Baku, in Soviet Azerbaijan. His mother was a pianist. His
grandfather and father, Leopold, were cellists. One memorable
photo shows him as an infant cradled in his father's cello case.
He started playing the piano at age 4 and took up the cello at
about 7, later studying at the Moscow Conservatory.
"When I started learning the cello, I fell in love with the
instrument because it seemed like a voice - my voice," Rostropovich
told Strad magazine.
He made his public debut as a cellist in 1942 at age 15, and
gained wide notice in the West nine years later, when the Soviets
sent him to perform at a festival in Florence, Italy. Life
magazine reported the 24-year-old "stirred the audience to warm
applause." The New York Times critic said his music was "first
class. His tone was big, clean and accurate. ... His musical
style seemed to be ardent and intense."
He developed close musical relationships with contemporary
composers, inspiring some 100 works, from Shostakovich, Prokofiev
and Benjamin Britten - as well as from some not-so-famous
During the 2002 AP interview, he spoke about Shostakovich, who
endured part of the Nazis' siege of Leningrad and battled for
individual expression under Stalin.
Suffering is essential for art, Rostropovich said. "You know
creators, composers, need a palette for life, a color for life.
If he (is) only happy with his life, I think that he (does not
fully) understand what is happiness."
Rostropovich's work for humanity didn't stop with the fall of
the Soviet Union. In 1991, he and his wife established the
Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation to help to improve the
health care of children in former Soviet lands.
Rostropovich received numerous awards, including the U.S.
Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987 and a knighthood conferred
on him that year by Queen Elizabeth II on his 60th birthday.
On the cellist's 80th birthday, the government newspaper Rossiiskaya
Gazeta published a letter the reclusive Solzhenitzyn wrote in
May 1973 after the author and his wife moved out of the
"Once more I repeat to you and Galiya my delight at your
steadfastness, with which you endured all the oppression connected
with me and did not allow me to feel," Solzhenitzyn wrote. "Once
again I am grateful for the years of shelter with you, where I
survived a time that was very stormy for me, but thanks to the
exceptional circumstances I all the same wrote without interruption."
State-run Rossiya television reported that Rostropovich would
be buried at Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery, where Yeltsin was
laid to rest Wednesday. Prokofiev and Shostakovich are among
the leading cultural figures buried there.
In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1955, survivors
include their daughters Olga and Elena.
Martin Steinberg contributed to this report from New York.
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