Elaine Meinel Supkis
One of the inspirations for my own musical life was this great cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. A product of a cross of the European Royalty/European Communist cultural dynamo created in Russia from 1880 to 1980, he was one of the crown jewels in that glittering diadem which had some of the world's greatest choreographers, dancers, skaters, musicians, composers, painters, poets, chess players and writers. The outpouring of cultural wealth from a system that most people wrongly imagine as weak and poor, never ceases to amaze me and break my heart.
Mstislav Rostropovich, a cellist and conductor who was renowned not only as one of the great instrumentalists of the 20th century, but also as an outspoken champion of artistic freedom in Russia during the final decades of the Cold War, died in Moscow today. He was 80 and lived in Paris, with homes in Moscow, St. Petersburg, London and Lausanne, Switzerland.
Mstislav Rostropovich conducting the New York Philharmonic in April 2005.
The Russian Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography confirmed that Mr. Rostropovich died in a Moscow hospital after a long illness. His press secretary would not release the cause of death.
Mr. Rostropovich was hospitalized in Paris at the end of January, but decided to fly to Moscow, where he has been in and out of hospitals and sanitoriums since early February.
Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin called Mr. Rostropovich’s death “a tremendous loss for Russian culture.”
The USA won WWII and we decided to try yet again to wrest the crown of cultural superiority from Europe and Russia. I was raised under that banner, taught to play many musical instruments, taken to the opera all over the world, given novels to read, learning the languages of Europe and the vast classical culture there, I was not the only one to do this. The apex of this effort was when Kennedy was President and Casals played the cello for Jackie.
Mstislav was one of many, many Russians who fled the interference of the dying Communist state. Because he was of tremendous intelligence as well as tremendous talent, he bravely stood up to the fearsome police state spawned by paranoid rulers of Russia.
Born on 27 March 1927 in Baku, a city on the west shore of the Caspian Sea, Mstislav Rostropovich began musical studies in early childhood with his parents. His mother was an accomplished pianist, and his father a distinguished cellist who had studied with Pablo Casals. At the age of sixteen he entered the Moscow Conservatory where he studied composition with Prokofiev and Shostakovich. In 1945 he came to prominence overnight as a cellist when he won the gold medal in the first ever Soviet Union competition for young musicians. Thereafter, despite his continued battle with the communist authorities, he became one of the central figures of the music life there, for twenty five years inspiring Soviet cellists, composers and audiences alike.
Due to international recording contracts and foreign tours, Mstislav Rostropovich also came to the attention of the West. He recorded nearly the entire cello literature during this time and attracted an unprecedented large quantity of new repertoire for the instrument through his personal contact to composers such as Benjamin Britten, who wrote his Cello Symphony, his Sonata for Cello and Piano and the three Suites for Solo Cello especially with Rostropovich in mind. Other composers who have written for Rostropovich include Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Khachaturian, Boulez, Berio, Messiaen, Schnittke, Bernstein, Dutilleux and Lutoslawski.
Mstislav Rostropovich and his family departed from the Soviet Union in 1974 in the midst of a controversy that attracted international attention.
From 1969 until then Mr. Rostropovich and his wife the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya had supported the banned novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn not only by allowing him to live in their dacha outside Moscow but by writing an open letter to Brezhnev protesting against Soviet restrictions on cultural freedom in 1970. These actions resulted in the cancellation of concerts and foreign tours for Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, a Soviet media black-out and the cessation of all recording projects. In 1974 they were finally granted exit visas, effectively allowing them to go into exile. Four years later they were stripped of their Soviet citizenship, a decree which held until 1990.
The West gathered the bouquet of Imperial Russia/Soviet State cultural flowerings and we got to enjoy the fruits of neo-nationalism wed to the passionate hearts of Eastern Europeans as the creators of culture were driven from their homelands.
Even when they all made a lot of money and were cheered onwards here in the West, cut off from the source of their creativity, they didn't pass on all that much culture to us because there is this well which feeds the springs of culture and if the well dries up, everything wilts and dies.
So even as all the articles today show the weakness of the Soviet State, few dare say what its strengths were! Namely, poets could frighten the State, novelists were dangerous and dancers were subversives! And this agony, this battle for the hearts and minds, the ears and eyes, made artists stronger! They FLOURISHED.
Why does adversity feed the fires of creativity? I would suggest this tension is required. The Dvorak piece I put up here tells this same story: Austria and Germany oppressed the Czech people of Bohemia. To regain their political power, they poured their souls into the arts and some of the finest composers and performers of the turn of the century came out of the well spring of the Moldave.
This was most true of Poland: Chopin lived as an exile in Paris but his well spring was in Warsaw. Many great performers lived in Warsaw's slums and ghettos. Madame Curie lived in exile in Paris but her own heart and soul were Polish, too. And so it goes: expressing their longings for freedom and strength, looking to the past for glory and to the future for hope, all the people of many cultures conquered by various despots poured their hearts and souls into Culture with a capital 'K' (Kultur, heh).
WWI and WWII roared like a steamroller over European culture and the various governments put together after WWII conducted a huge propaganda war with each other to prove who was best. Each had its strengths and weaknesses. The weakness in the West was the need to pretend we are classless. So our popular media had to make relentless fun of Kultur and mocking people who loved poetry, the arts and all those things Pegasus loves, the Graces, the Fine Arts, etc.
This has been a very successful propaganda point that has turned our culture vulgar. The Soviets took the opposite path and elevated all the 'noble' arts bankrolled by the Czars. If the Soviets acted like the Americans, we would have had a much feebler 'fine arts' culture here in the USA because Russia saved us from our own follies.
As China is today. They are now trying to prove superiority by reviving or increasing participation in the fine arts. I admire China a lot for this. The sales of violins, cellos, pianos, etc, is shooting up in China, for example. More and more, they are winning ballet and ice skating competitions and doing this by being more artistic. In all the arts, they are moving forwards, fast.
The point here is, Rostropovich probably might have had not much of a chance of becoming a great cellist if he grew up in America today.