Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich studied first with his father, then a relative (Semyon Kozolupov) and then at the Moscow Conservatory (including composition with Prokofiev and Shostakovich), where he later became professor of cello. As a cellist, his talent continually surpassed that of his teachers.
In 1955 he married the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.
His international career began in 1964 in former West Germany, touring in western Europe and meeting various composers, including Benjamin Britten, leaving a legacy of superb recordings and influencing the cello world almost beyond description. His world fame was initially for the vibrant qualities of his cello playing, and especially in performances of the concertos written for him. Yet this part of his life has long been overshadowed by his vigorous conducting career in the concert hall and opera house.
Slava was a passionate fighter for art without borders, freedom of speech and human rights. He famously sheltered, in his own home, the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1970. In the same year he wrote an open letter to Brezhnev in protest against the Soviet restrictions on cultural freedom (an act which Slava thought his single most important achievement). This resulted in harrassment from the then Soviet regime (including cancellation of foreign tours and a complete media black-out), his self-imposed exile from 1974 and the revoking of his Soviet citizenship in 1978. For much of the latter part of his life he lived in Paris.
Rostropovich and his wife formed VRF, the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation for the health and future of children, to begin social projects and activities, including a vaccination programme in Azerbaijan. They made occasional visits to Azerbaijan, and Slava presented cello masterclasses at Azerbaijan State Conservatory.
Slava played the 1711 Duport Stradivarius, considered to be one of the greatest cellos ever to be made. He gave an impromptu performance at the Berlin Wall in 1989, as the wall was demolished by demonstrators. Composers writing for Slava included Bernstein, Britten, Dutilleux, Ginastera, Messiaen, Lutoslavsky, Prokofiev and Schnittke.
He was a huge influence on younger cellists, Julian Lloyd Webber commenting that no other single person had done as much for the cello. His status was such that Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Slava in hospital in 2006 to discuss details for The Kremlin's celebration of Rostropovich's eightieth birthday. Putin commented that Slava's death was a terrible loss for Russian culture.
Amongst the awards received during his lifetime were the 1995 Polar Music Prize, the Honour Award of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Citizen of honour of Vilnius, Lithuania, and the Order of Service to the Fatherland, First Degree, for his 'outstanding contribution to the development of world music and many years of creative activity' (presented by Putin on 26 February 2007).
Mstislav Rostropovich died in Moscow on 27 April 2007, aged eighty.
CD Spotlight. Original Soloists - Shostakovich concertos, enjoyed by Robert Anderson. '... high-powered music-making ...'
CD Spotlight. Great Performances - Dvorák's Cello and Piano Concertos, heard by Stephen Francis Vasta. '... it's a pleasure to hear Mstislav Rostropovich at this early stage of his career ...'
Ask Alice - Classical Music Agony Aunt Alice McVeigh mourns the passing of the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich