The life of Mstislav Rostropovich as seen through the archives

Rostropovich in front of the Berlin wall, or playing with his friend Britten, or even accompanying the French singer Charles Aznavour… The life of the legendary 20th-century cellist Mstislav Rostropovitch, is best told through 8 important recordings and videos throughout his career.

The life of Mstislav Rostropovich as seen through the archives
The life of Mstislav Rostropovich as seen through the archives, © Getty / The life of Mstislav Rostropovich as seen through the archives

Born on 27 March 1927, the virtuosity of Mstislav Rostropovich, along with his many other qualities as a performer, profoundly influenced the music of the 20th century and countless composers, many of whom created works for cello with the legendary performer specifically in mind.

A renowned performer and conductor, Rostropovich was also known for his political activism. A political exile, he moved to the United States and then to France before the fall of the USSR. He became a popular figure far beyond the limits of classical music, defending free speech and the democratic ideal.

Here are 8 important moments in the life and career of the great Mstislav Rostropovich...

His first performance as a soloist

For his first performance as a soloist with an orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich performed Camille Saint-Saëns's Cello Concerto n°1. He was only 13 years old...

Upon entering the Moscow Conservatory three years later, he furthered his training as a cellist but also began studying the piano, composition, and orchestral conducting. Though he displayed great proficiency in all domains, he quickly established a reputation for himself as a cello virtuoso. There was no doubt amongst his professors of the bright and successful career that awaited the young musician...

His professor, Shostakovich

During his time at the Moscow Conservatory, Mstislav Rostropovich studied under the great Dmitri Shostakovich. The two musicians remained great friends throughout their lifetimes, and the composer even dedicated several of his works to his former student, notably his son Cello Concerto no.1.

His wife, Galina Vichnevskaïa

Rostropovich is "a man with a kind of frantic motor inside him", as described by his wife, the singer Galina Vichnevskaïa. She was one of the great lyrical voices of the Bolshoï Theatre when she first met her future husband in the early 1950s.

The musical couple often performed on stage together. He would conduct the orchestra or accompany his wife at the piano, like in 1964, at a recital dedicated to the melodies of Tchaikovsky.

His friendship with Benjamin Britten

Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten first met in London in 1960. A great friendship was quickly forged between the two great musical figures, and the British composer dedicated five major works for cello to the Russian cellist. In this extract, the musicians perform together the Arpeggione Sonata by Franz Schubert: Benjamin Britten at the piano and Rostropovich tackling the challenging upper registers of his cello...

His performance in front of the Berlin wall

It is undoubtedly one of the most famous and powerful images that remain of the cellist. On 11 November 1989, two days after the fall of the Berlin wall, Rostropovich improvised a concert at “Checkpoint Charlie”, a famous point of passage allowing those from the West to go the East.

In front of a stunned crowd and television cameras from all over the world, Rostropovich performed Bach's famous Cello Suites, thus celebrating the end of a political conflict that had forced the cellist into exile and stripped him of his Soviet nationality.

Tout un monde lointain...

The friendship between the French composer Henri Dutilleux and the famous Rostropovich, then a political exile living in Paris, led to one of the legendary works for the cello repertoire: Tout un monde lointain..., concerto premiered in 1970 at the Palais de l’Archevêché in Aix-en-Provence.

The work's premiere was a great success, though neither of the two friends was entirely satisfied with this first performance... This disappointment was quickly forgotten after the performances and recordings that followed. "This concerto is a miracle", admitted Rostropovich in 1977 during an interview with Radio France.

His passion for conducting

The one known as "Rostro" and "Slava" was first and foremost associated with one instrument in particular: the cello. But his career cannot be examined without discussing his passion for orchestral conducting.

Rostropovich took to the podium on countless occasions: in 1967 at the Bolchoï to conduct the opera Eugène Onéguine by Tchaïkovsky, betwee 1977 and 1994 with the Washington Symphony Orchestra, and here below, in November 2006, at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, with the Orchestre de Paris.

His awards

A Grand Officer of the French Légion d'Honneur, Knight of the Order of the British Empire, and a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Mstislav Rostropovich was even invited in January 1995 to perform at the opening ceremony of the French presidency of the European Union, alongside the French singer Charles Aznavour.

"I adore Charles Aznavour because he brings joy to millions of people with his music", admits the cellist in the video below. "As if you didn't bring any with yours!" replies the French singer...