In music, he was "an epoch in the art of the cello," according to his teacher Dmitry Shostakovich. Among the composers who wrote specially for him were Prokofiev, Britten, Bernstein, Schnitke, Khachaturian and Piazzolla. He performed every work for cello that has ever been written and was the first performer of 117 pieces. But it was not only his musical genius, his peerless performing and conducting skills (he swept the board of Russian and international prizes) that made him great. He was great because of his humanity, conscience, independence and intolerance of lies. This is how his image will be etched forever in the Russian soul, in the Russian consciousness.
Rostropovich was inseparable from Russia wherever he lived. In 1974, he and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya (a former Bolshoi opera diva) left the U.S.S.R. physically, but not spiritually. A champion of freedom - both creative and political - he lived abroad but remained at home in his thoughts.
"I love Russia more than any other country in the world," the maestro used to say.
It was not by chance that as soon as Russia began to shed its ideological fetters, he hurried back home. He initially came in 1990 when he took Washington's National Symphony Orchestra on a concert tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg (then still called Leningrad). That year, the "number one cellist" was given back his Russian citizenship and the government decorations of which he had been stripped when he emigrated. And in 1991, during the August coup attempt, when Russia's freedom hang in the balance, "the furious Slava," as he was known, flew to Moscow to join the supporters of democracy at the White House.
Talent and conscience were his only guides in life. "Solzhenitsyn's suffering earned him the right to speak the truth," he declared in 1970 in an open letter to the press. By supporting the dissident writer, he expressed his own unshakeable credo: be truthful in everything, in art and in life.
He had followed that credo since his youth. In February 1952, Rostropovich performed Prokofiev's Symphony Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, with the pianist Sviatoslav Richter conducting, at the Grand Conservatory Hall. It was a daring act of civil defiance as memories were still fresh of the crackdown on "formalist" composers (including Shostakovich and Prokofiev), who were accused of sacrificing content for the sake of form. In any case, he was "forgiven," just like he would be 10 years later, in the early 60s, when he accompanied his wife's performance of "Satires," a vocal cycle composed by Shostakovich to the words of a "banned" poet, Sasha Cherny. These social send-ups were considered frivolous, but they fell short of being criminal, so the couple were allowed to go on tours, win prizes and put their creative ideas into practice. In 1968, Rostropovich was even able to realize his life-long dream by staging Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin" at the Bolshoi with Vishnevskaya, his wife, singing the lead part, Tatyana Larina.
In the 1970s, after the Solzhenitsyn scandal, the authorities tried to cut off Rostropovich's oxygen. They didn't stand a chance. His freedom was personal and total. No ideology could crush it. And no ailment could stop him from creating.
He landed in hospital shortly before his 80th birthday. He felt unwell in December 2006 during a trip to Voronezh. Even bed-ridden, he was planning to meet all his commitments, preparing for the 13th International Tchaikovsky Competition scheduled for June.
"I must hurry," he kept saying.
He checked out of the Moscow Oncological Center in early March, only to be hospitalized again within days. Everybody was worried about his health, with newspapers in Russia and abroad constantly writing about him. President Putin visited him in the hospital. The musician had been declared a "national treasure," and on the eve of his 80th birthday he was decorated with the Order for Services to the Fatherland.
A great musician and a great man has departed, after a life spent discovering for the world new works and new composers, and serving as a shining example of Russian conscience and honor.
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