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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’ame du violoncelle

by Maurice Ulrich

The Soul of the Violin Cello

Translated Thursday 10 May 2007, by Henry Crapo

Departed: Mstislav Rostropovitch
, who died on 27 April [1], one month after his 80th birthday, is remembered around the world. An immense musician, he was at the heart of the major combats of the twentieth century.

The notoriety of this great musician is due also to his combat for liberty.

Could we have imagined, just one month earlier, day for day, while we were celebrating the eightieth birthday of Mstislav Rostropovitch, that his death would come so soon thereafter? Of course he had been ill for several months, and made regular trips to the hospital, but that birthday party, in itself, seemed to give him a new breath of life. As if the stormy relations with his own country, Russia, as if the history of that land, merged with the world history of that period, were finally at peace. "I am the happiest of men", he declared that day, at the Kremlin, celebrated by hundreds of people, including the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Now, some days only after the death of Boris Yeltsin, we recall how Rostropovitch had stood up, in 1991, in front of the Parliament to oppose the attempted putsch, with, in his hand, a rifle instead of a cello. It is this same Parliament, the Duma, that observed yesterday a minute of silence upon the announcement of his death. Like Yeltsin, Rostropovitch will lie to rest in the Novodevitchi cemetery in Moscow, beside the writers Anton Chekhov, Nicolai Gogol, Mikhaïl Boulgakov, and beside the two great composers who were his compatriots and friends, Serge Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich.

At the Russian Parliament, a rifle in his hand.

He was considered the greatest cellist of the twentieth century, and performed the most famous works of his contemporaries, many of whom composed especially for him. To the leading repertory of Russian classics of Tchaikovsky and Moussorgsky he added, over and above the works of his previously cited contemporaries, also works by Benjamin Britten, Henri Dutilleux, and Lutoslawski. He played chamber music alongside Horowitz, Menuhin, and Richter, and also directed from the podium works such as Eugene Onegin.

But the notoriety of this great musician, who became in recent years an ambassador of UNESCO, arose equally from his combat for liberty. We have mentioned the moment of the attempted putsch in 1991. We need to recall this historic and dramatic moment. Because if this coup d’état turned into a fiasco, it was precisely because the tanks opened fire on the Parliament. Rostropovitch was, once again, at the heart of the most painful contradictions of history, that saw the red sun of October turn to blood, with the mounting disillusion and the slow collapse of its greatest hopes.

He played a suite by Bach at the foot of the Berlin Wall, as it was being felled.

Before that, there was the time in 1989, when suddenly a people, with its youth and all its lively force, undertook to destroy, with bare hands, with pick and shovel, a wall, that of Berlin. The Wall. To be sure, there was also, then, disillusion. But it was the end of an epoch, and the realization of that fact was without possible contradiction. What had been called "the real socialism" was a failure and the people had rejected it. That was the 11th of November 1989, and Mstislav Rostropovitch, seated on a chair, played the Bach Suite at the foot of the Berlin Wall [2].

The end of an era and the continuation of a history. Because he was of that generation that had seen, in the USSR itself, Stalinism lay claim to rule over the arts and creativity. Surely the first period following 1917 was such as to lead one to believe that modern art would be the art of the revolution. It became necessary to reconsider this position, for new mornings to open up to another song. Yet the greatest creators of the Soviet Union would have to accept a compromise. Eisenstein, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, who would see several of their masterpieces put to death by servile criticism of the most mediocre critics. Shostakovitch’s Seventh Symphony, Leningrad, was admired for its heroic dimension. The Eighth was banned because its evocation of war was too sombre, too dramatic. The regime would then prevent Boris Pasternak, author of the powerful masterpiece Doctor Zhivago, from accepting his Nobel Prize. Aleksander Solshenitsyn, who had denounced the camps in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was praised by Khrushchev during the period of thaw following the revelation of the crimes of Stalinism. But in 1970, Solshenitsyn, who had just received the Nobel Prize, was attacked and reviled. Rostropovitch came to his aid in a letter addressed to the Pravda, but it was never published. "The best thing I did was not my music, but that letter to the Pravda. After that, my conscience was at peace." He was sent to play with orchestras in the provinces.

Deprived of his citizenship in 1978

In 1974 he left the USSR with his wife and two daughters. In 1978, it was in Paris where he became friends with Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet, that he learned from the television that his Soviet citizenship had been revoked. In 1990, a decree by Mikhail Gorbatchev would render him justice. He could once again return to Russia, but not without some difficulties and misunderstandings. But he would henceforth remain.

The image, the images of Rostropovitch speak to everyone. The violin cello, they say, is the instrument that best approximates the human voice. It is the instrument of the soul. Mstislav Rostropovitch played it with the soul of a century.

[1He lived from March 27, 1927 until April 27, 2007

[2Listen to a bit of that concert. Or also, when he plays part of Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in quieter surroundings.

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