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Mstislav Rostropovich
Mstislav Rostropovich. (Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)

Mstislav Rostropovich, cello luminary and conductor, dies at 80

Mstislav Rostropovich, the legendary Russian cellist and conductor whose molten intensity, interpretive imagination, and technical brilliance won him critical acclaim and widespread audience adoration as well as close friendships with three of the era's great composers, died early this morning. The Russian press reported that he died in a Moscow cancer hospital. He was 80 years old.

Mr. Rostropovich was recognized as one of the great string players of the modern era and the last of the celebrated mid-century Soviet titans, who included the violinist David Oistrakh and the pianist Sviatoslav Richter. At the prime of his cello performance career, when Mr. Rostropovich played Romantic music or the works written expressly for him by the many composers he inspired, his music-making could be searing in its expressive urgency and heroic in its stature. As a soloist, his sound had the power to lacerate a full orchestra, but he could also draw the listener inward with a subtlety, tonal resourcefulness, and cogency of rhetoric that were unsurpassed.

Mr. Rostropovich, or "Slava" as he was almost universally known, kept multiple homes around the world but lived primarily in Paris. During the 1970s, his outspoken defense of the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn earned him harsh rebuke and later exile from his country, while granting him considerable moral authority and political celebrity in the West.

His playing led to close relationships with three of the era's greatest composers: Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Benjamin Britten. Each of these men wrote important works for Mr. Rostropovich that are now thoroughly established in the cello repertoire, and when other composers are included in the tally, more than 80 works were written for him, a record that is all but certainly unmatched by any performer of the modern era. He played the fabled "Duport" Stradivarius, with a scratch on its side that is said to have come from a spur on Napoleon's boot.

He was also a fine pianist, and performed often as an accompanist for his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, whom he married in 1955. In recent years, as his cello technique faded, he increasingly appeared as a conductor. The performances he led from the podium were sometimes seen as exaggerated or idiosyncratic, but his interpretations of the music by the composers he knew personally were forcefully authoritative. In 2006 and as recently as January of this year, he led performances of Shostakovich's music with orchestras from New York to Tokyo.

Off-stage, he was known for his ebullient generosity of spirit, his love of luxury living, his enormous bear hugs, and the often childlike playfulness with which he related to the world. A stocky man with the refined hands of a poet, he showed up to Isaac Stern's 70th birthday concert in a ballet tutu. When he met with journalists, he would often request that a translator be present, and then nevertheless barrel through the conversation in choppy English, drenched in an accent thicker than a Russian forest.

In one such interview, conducted last year by this writer, he offered a ringing summary and self-assessment: "I'm the happiest man in the world," he declared. But he also seemed to feel deeply the undertow of an ever-receding past. When sharing memories of Shostakovich and Britten, his eyes welled up with tears.

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich was born into a musical family in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1927. His mother was a pianist and his father an accomplished cellist who had studied with Pablo Casals. The family moved to Moscow but was evacuated to the Ural mountains during World War II. When Mr. Rostropovich was 14, his father died, an event he always credited with precipitating a new seriousness in his approach to music. Among other things, it was a profession through which he could help support his family.

He eventually attended the Moscow Conservatory, studying cello with Semyon Kozolupov. It was there, in 1943, that he first met Shostakovich and joined his orchestration class. The two men built a friendship that lasted more than three decades, and Mr. Rostropovich in later years spoke of him as a kind of surrogate father figure. The two played together frequently, and Shostakovich dedicated several works to him, including the Cello Concerto No. 1, of 1959. Mr. Rostropovich was so honored by the dedication that he performed the work from memory for the composer just four days later.

By that point, he had begun touring widely in the West, taking advantage of a thaw in Cold War cultural relations that had ensued under the Khrushchev government. He made his debuts in America and Britain in 1956, and his bravura cello playing was often a revelation to audiences, critics, and young musicians. Nor did he shy away from programs that showcased him as a kind of conquering hero of the cello. In one example, he appeared with the BSO under Erich Leinsdorf in 1965, playing Haydn's C Major Concerto, the American premiere of Britten's Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, and the Dvorak Cello Concerto. Reviewing the concert in the Globe, Michael Steinberg wrote that "Rostropovich's playing is the most inflected I have ever heard. Its variety, the sense of life being renewed in every note, the powerful coherence seem unique today, and to covey all this, Rostropovich has developed a degree of technical control in itself hardly to be believed." In later years, Mr. Rostropovich also forged a close connection with then-BSO music director Seiji Ozawa and returned frequently to perform with the orchestra.

His stature as a soloist was ultimately inseparable from the larger role of music in the cultural life of the Soviet Union. At home, in a society where expressive freedom was radically curtailed, concerts often carried an expanded sense of meaning as a space for both public ritual and private catharsis. Composers like Shostakovich, and their chosen interpreters, were beloved figures whose music often carried the mythic weight of grand narratives told on a communal stage. Mr. Rostropovich and his close colleagues also became sources of national pride, decorated with State honors and paraded on the world's stages as evidence of the country's advanced cultural achievement.

On one such tour in 1960, Shostakovich brought Benjamin Britten backstage to meet the cellist for the first time. But as Mr. Rostropovich later confessed to one interviewer for, his years of isolation behind the Iron Curtain meant he had very little exposure to Britten's music, and the cellist had in fact imagined Britten to be a composer from an earlier century. When Shostakovich introduced them, Mr. Rostropovich thought it was a hilarious practical joke and burst out laughing, only to slowly realize that before him stood the great living composer Benjamin Britten.

This rocky opening did not prevent the two men from developing a close professional and personal relationship. Britten wrote several works for Mr. Rostropovich, including, most notably, the three magnificent solo cello suites, which have since entered the core of the 20th-century cello repertory.

Mr. Rostropovich's relationship with the Soviet government grew strained in 1970, when he and his wife sheltered the embattled Solzhenitsyn in their dacha outside of Moscow. It was a very tense time, and Solzhenitsyn at one point suggested that they travel in separate cars in case the KGB tried to attack them in transit. That same year the cellist wrote an open letter defending Solzhenitsyn and sent it to four Russian newspapers on his way out of the country for a concert tour. "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 wrote. "Every person must have the right to think and express views fearlessly and independently about things that are known to him, that he has personally thought out and lived through -- and not simply to offer weak variations on an opinion implanted in him."

The letter was not published in Russia but it was leaked to the West while Mr. Rostropovich was still on tour. At one concert along the way, camera crews were awaiting him. So was the KGB.

Mr. Rostropovich and his wife were subjected to roughly four years of artistic quarantine, their travel abroad nearly ended, and their concertizing at home drastically curtailed. Finally, after the intervention of Senator Edward Kennedy, the cellist and his wife were granted temporary visas to the West. The Globe reported on Mr. Rostropovich's arrival in London in May 1974, with two cellos and a Newfoundland dog. He was quoted as saying that he and his family "remain Soviet citizens and I love very deeply my country and my people." Their citizenship was officially stripped four years later, and Mr. Rostropovich did not return to Russia until 1990.

The cellist later recalled that one of the hardest things about leaving Russia was saying goodbye to an ailing Shostakovich, for whom he had been instrumental in securing medical care and even in building an extra wing of a special clinic in Kurgan, Siberia, when the facilities were said to be full. Mr. Rostropovich happened to be conducting the composer's monumental Fifth Symphony at Tanglewood in 1975 on the day he learned of Shostakovich's death in Moscow. He called for a moment of silence, and after the performance, placed a bouquet of roses atop the score.

From 1977 to 1994, Mr. Rostropovich served as conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and he guest-conducted throughout the world. By his own tally, between his cello performance and his conducting work, he gave more than 200 world premieres. In later years, though he grew less politically engaged, he maintained a well-honed sense of the symbolic power of his own image and of music itself. He performed the Bach Cello Suites at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, and he was present at Moscow's White House during an attempted putsch in 1991. That same year, he and his wife established a foundation dedicated to improving the health of children in the former Soviet Union. Ms. Vishnevskaya survives him, as do two daughters, Olga and Elena, and his grandchildren. Beginning tomorrow, he will lie in state at the Moscow Conservatory.

When Mr. Rostropovich worked as a guest conductor with orchestras or spoke with young admirers, he often tried to instill, by demonstration or simply by being himself -- a living repository of 20th-century history -- the importance of music not as a decorative appendage to a cultured life, but as an existential necessity and as a moral force capable of bringing hope and consolation to those in need.

He would also speak openly and with palpable emotion about the musical relationships that had sustained him through the decades. He said that Shostakovich's image sometimes appeared to him when he conducted his music. And as the years wore on, he seemed undaunted by the prospect of his own aging, or even by his own death. "I await this time," he told this writer last year in San Francisco, adding, with a thinly veiled sense of wonder, "because I absolutely believe that all my friends await me there."

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at