Today, the world lost one of its greatest artists and political dissidents. Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist and symphony conductor, died at 80 in Moscow.
Rostropovich was, first and foremost, a brilliant musician and champion of music. One of the world’s most legendary cellists, he was also a teacher of music, inspiring and mentoring musicians such as Jacqueline du Pre, Mischa Maisky, Natalia Gutman, David Geringas, David Finckel and Han-Na Chang. Rostropovich was also a champion of modern composers of classical music, helping to bring to audiences, many for the first time, over 100 original compositions, including Shostakovich's two cello concertos, Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante and Britten's Symphony for Cello and Orchestra.
But in addition to being one of the world’s most remarkable musicians and champions of music, Rostropovich was also a deeply political man. Rostropovich was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1978, and exiled from Russia for over a decade afterward. Of his exile, Rostropovich said "When Leonid Brezhnev stripped us of our citizenship in 1978, we were obliterated. Russia was in my heart - in my mind. I suffered because I knew that until the day I died, I would never see Russia or my friends again."
But Rostropovich had the good fortune to outlive his exile; in 1990, he was invited back to the Soviet Union, saw his citizenship restored, and he was invited to conduct the American National Symphony Orchestra in Moscow. At the Moscow Conservatory's Great Hall, packed with high-ranking officials including Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet premiere, Rostropovich led the National Symphony in a program filled with sad music, including Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony and Shostakovich's anguished Fifth Symphony, which was written at the height of the Stalinist purges in 1937. But Rostropovich chose, for the final encore, to conduct John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," the traditional finale of the National Symphony's annual Fourth-of-July concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington.
The Moscow audience of the Soviet elite gave "Stars and Stripes Forever" a standing ovation.
Mstislav Rostropovich touched millions through his music, but I had the particular good fortune to have been touched by him personally. In 1988, as a boy alto, I had the priviledge of performing with the National Symphony Orchestra in the opera Boris Gudenov, with Rostropovich as our conductor. While too young to appreciate at the time the good fortune I had to work with a musical legend, I will never forget the passion, brilliance, and sweetness of the man who insisted that we call him "Slava" and used to give myself and the other child performers peppermints out of his pocket when rehearsals went too long.
In 1994, in an interview, Rostropovich said, "If I have another life - a thousand lives - it would be exactly the same." My thanks to you, a superb inspiration and teacher, for once again giving me and others such a fine foundation upon which to build our lives.