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Russian orchestra conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich during a rehearsal for a concert in Barcelona in May 2004.
Russian orchestra conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich during a rehearsal for a concert in Barcelona in May 2004. Cesar Rangel/AFP/Getty Images
A guide to some of Rostropovich’s essential recordings
20 years ago Weekend Edition Saturday produced this profile of Rostropovich at age 60.
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Mstislav Rostropovich in 2004.
Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who courageously fought for the rights of Soviet-era dissidents and later triumphantly played Bach suites below the crumbling Berlin Wall, died Friday. He was 80.
A spokeswoman for the master cellist did not immediately provide other details surrounding his death.
Rostropovich died in a Moscow cancer hospital, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. He is reported to have suffered from intestinal cancer.
He served as the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. for nearly 20 years during his exile to the U.S.
President Vladimir Putin visited the ailing musician in the hospital earlier this year — an indication of both the respect Rostropovich has earned as a cultural figure and how much the political landscape has changed since he was exiled from the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Rostropovich leaves a legacy that is artistic and political. As a cello soloist he was a friend and muse to many of the most important composers of the 20th Century.
The longevity and path of his career can be seen in some of the many honors Rostropovich was awarded, including the Lenin Prize, the Stalin Prize and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
He was born in Baku, in the Soviet Union (now Azerbaijan) on March 27, 1927.
In an interview with National Public Radio in 1987, Rostropovich recalled a conversation with his mother, describing, in his heavy accent, his hands as a beautiful gift.
"My mother carried me for 10 months. I tell her, 'Mother you have extra month, why you not make for me beautiful face?' And mother tell me, 'My son, I was busy with make you beautiful hands," he said.
Both of his parents were accomplished musicians. His father was a cellist who had studied with Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist and conductor.
In 1943, young Rostropovich entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Dmitri Shostakovich. The composer wrote two cello concertos for Rostropovich.
Rostropovich had a thriving career as a soloist in the 1950s and 1960s, including performances and recordings outside of the Soviet Union.
Cellist Lynn Harrell says the first time he saw Rostropovich perform, his passion and ferocity were reminiscent of a forest fire.
"He was a gigantic virtuoso, but one who threw caution to the winds to such an extent that the cause of drama and the intensity of the music itself were uppermost," Harrell said.
Rostropovich also took chances politically, in the controlling atmosphere of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev, which ended up getting him into trouble.
In the early 1970s, he not only provided housing for the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn for four years but also wrote a letter that circulated in the West protesting Soviet treatment of the author. As a result, his concert appearances were drastically cut, and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, lost her job at the Bolshoi Opera.
In 1974, they were granted exit visas, and while out the country were stripped of their citizenship.
Rostropovich adopted the United States as his home in exile. He served as the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) in Washington, D.C., from 1977 to 1994.
And in a dramatic reversal, in 1990 President Mikhail Gorbachev reinstated the couple's citizenship, and Rostropovich triumphantly returned to his homeland on tour with the NSO, where he was greeted enthusiastically at the Moscow Conservatory.
Rostropovich told NPR the visit reminded him of when the Berlin Wall had come down.
"I have feeling that my heart now is together — two half of heart now together," he said.