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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK
Rostropovich: A life in music
Mstislav Rostropovich
Mstislav Rostropovich is proud of his collaborations with great composers
The celebrated cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich tells the BBC World Service about his enduring friendships and his historic open letter of protest to Pravda.

Mstislav Rostropovich has played to sell out audiences around the globe.

But his life has not always been one of success and plaudits.

He told the BBC's Music Review programme how he and fellow composer Serge Prokofiev once had to beg for food and how he was exiled from Russia as a dissident.

"One day Prokofiev said, 'I have no more money for breakfast'.

"I went to see the union of composers and said 'Mr Prokofiev has no money for food, maybe you would give to him a little bit of money?'. They gave me the sum of $15 in roubles for Prokofiev."


As a cellist his exceptional virtuosity and consummate artistry have profoundly influenced major composers and performers of the last 50 years.

His 75th birthday and life was recently celebrated by a bonanza of record releases and a series of gala concerts in London and New York.

The concerts were devoted to the music of three 20th Century giant composers who became his close personal friends and wrote music specifically for him: Serge Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten and Dimitri Shostakovitch.

Mstislav Rostropovich with his wife Galina
Celebrating his 75th birthday with wife Galina
Rostropovich told the Music Review programme about a lifetime of enduring friendships.

"When I conduct and play Shostakovich I sometimes see his face come to me," he explained.

"I also see his expression as he is saying, 'Maybe that is a bit too slow Mstislav or a little bit faster' and then his face disappears."

Free speech

Friendship has always been important to Rostropovich, exemplified by an incident in 1970 when he risked his life writing a letter to the state-run newspaper Pravda.

In it he savagely attacked the Soviet Party's repression of free speech and its oppression of artists, musicians and writers such as the dissident novelist Alexander Solzhenitsym - his personal friend whom he was protecting in his home.

"Can it really be that the times we have lived through have not taught us to take a more cautious attitude toward crushing talented people?" he asked.

"Not to speak in the name of an entire nation? Not to force people to utter opinions about things they have never read or heard?

"Each human being must have the right to think for himself and to express his opinion without fear," he wrote.


The letter was never published as the newspapers came under the complete control of the state and were taking all their orders directly from the ruling party's bureaucracy.

Life at a glance
Name: Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich
Born: 27 March 1927, Baku, Azerbaijan
Education: 1943-46, Moscow conservatory
Family: 1955 married soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. They have two daughters Olga and Elena
Acclaimed performances include: Prokofiev Symphony Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, 1952; Shostakovich Concerto No1, 1959; Britten Symphony for Cello and Orchestra 1963

Rostropovich literally risked his life writing it, especially as there were moles around who leaked it to the West.

He and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were not arrested but they were stripped of their Soviet citizenship whilst abroad in Paris.

Initially Vishnevskaya was still allowed to perform but, as she has explained, her details failed to appear in any reviews.

"I sang the lead role in The Gambler by Prokofiev on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre and my name wasn't even mentioned in the press. It was like the lead character didn't exist."


The couple were only able to see their homeland again after the fall of communism in 1991.

Even now Rostropovich often rereads his letter and finds great strength in his decision to write to the press.

He told Music Review: "I have one fantastic medicine in my life. I read my letter to Pravda and honestly when I read this I have tears in my eyes.

"I thank God for giving me the possibility to write this letter. I tell you if you ask me, "What I have made best in my life?'.

"The best step was not found in music, but in one page of this letter. Since that moment my conscience was clean and clear."

Rostropovich speaks to Music Review
"Sometimes Shostakovich's face comes to me"
See also:

05 Feb 99 | Entertainment
Solzhenitsyn attacked over literary feud
15 May 01 | Arts
Bolshoi standards slipping
27 Jun 01 | Arts
Bolshoi names new 'director'
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