[This obituary was written by an anonymous contributor to the blog, who as a young musician had the distinct honor of personally meeting the great Russian master.] In his prime, Mstislav Rostropovich, the greatest cellist of his time, played like a man possessed by demons. Anyone who had the privilege of watching him play in the 1960s and early 1970s found it almost painful to watch as Rostropovich engaged in what seemed a fierce and personal struggle of life-or-death intensity with his instrument, desperately fighting to make it produce sounds of incredible and sublime beauty.
When he lived in the USSR, Rostropovich played like a man possessed
It was only later that we learned just what a nightmarish inner hell this amazing man was living through each and every day of his life in the Soviet Union. A man of profound moral convictions, he was literally being rent asunder from within by the inhumanity, lies, hypocrisy, and falsehood he saw around him every day. At last he could take it no more, and spoke out – for artistic freedom, for freedom of speech, and for democracy in his motherland. For which he was branded a dissident, prohibited from touring abroad, and ultimately stripped of his Soviet citizenship and sent into exile. Once he was free in the West, Rostropovich underwent a remarkable change that was evident to all who saw him. It was as if a great weight had at last been lifted off his shoulders. The inner demons were gone, the tempestuous and brooding cloud had finally dissipated. Rostropovich became visibly relaxed, began to smile, and seemed to finally be enjoying life instead of constantly struggling with it. There are those who would say that his playing lost some kind of indefinable “edge” after this, but none would argue that he didn’t remain the finest living cellist on earth.
Rostropovich was visibly more relaxed in exile
In his decades of exile, Rostropovich seemed to be everywhere at once in the musical world, living the artistic freedom he had so longed for. With his boundless energy reinvigorated, he maintained a rigorous performing schedule, conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC from 1977 to 1994, founded and directed numerous music festivals, and did a great deal of volunteer charity work worldwide. When he saw the fall of the Berlin Wall on television, Rostropovich knew he had to be a part of this historical event. He packed his cello and flew off to Berlin to give an impromptu street concert right underneath what was left of this symbol of oppression and tyranny. And when the new-found freedom in his homeland was threatened by a reactionary putsch, Rostropovich knew he must go back home, to stand and be counted among those who valued personal freedom and democracy.
Rostropovich played at Checkpoint Charlie as the Berlin Wall came down
Mstislav Rostropovich was living proof that Russians do value freedom and do flourish when they have it and suffer when they must live under the yoke of tyranny. His passing, perhaps even more than that of Boris Yeltsin, marks the end of an era of Russian heroes of democracy.