Rostropovich’s Technique and Advocacy for New Music Elevated the Cello and More than Doubled Its Repertoire

By Miranda Wilson

Before we stepped into the hall, Professor Ivashkin handed out a collection of bijou chocolate boxes and instructed us to give them to the maestro, who had a fondness for candy and young people. We must, he told us, call him by the polite Russian form of address, Mstislav Leopoldovich, not “Slava,” as he was to his close friends. We followed our teacher inside, so nervous our knees were shaking.

We needn’t have been so afraid. Rostropovich bounded toward us, cello in hand, and to our amazement, kissed us all over our faces. “Kollegen!” he exclaimed in German (“Colleagues!”), graciously accepting our chocolates. I was star-struck, and this feeling only increased when Rostropovich took his place on the stage and started to play. He was not as tall as I had imagined, but his arms were incredibly long, and he held both of them in a “draped” position around the cello, whose bent endpin elevated it to a near-horizontal plane. The repertoire—Penderecki’s Second Cello Concerto—was complicated and virtuosic, but technical difficulties did not exist for Rostropovich. His left hand appeared to glide around the cello with perfect ease, using the flat pads of his fingers to produce an intense vibrato. In combination with his unbelievably agile bow technique, this produced a huge tone. The force of his personality seemed to fill the hall as much as the resonance of his sound.

After the rehearsal, Mstislav Leopoldovich was in a volubly good mood. As we clustered around him, he demanded to see our thumb calluses to check whether we’d played enough hard études. “They could be bigger,” he told us, showing us his own immense callus. He spent 20 or 30 minutes talking about cello with us in a broken mixture of English and German, and would do the same on the five or six other occasions we were permitted to visit with him. I peppered him with questions about Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten, and he answered them all thoughtfully. (“Prokofiev liked very much different colors,” he told me. “You must play Prokofiev this way.”) I was astonished that he, the greatest cellist in the world, was willing to spend so much time with me, a 20-year-old nobody from New Zealand.


But every cellist—distinguished or obscure—who met Rostropovich has a story like this. He was a generous human being who touched the lives of so many of us, and his legacy of influence continues ten years after his death at age 80 in 2007. It is almost impossible to fathom the amount Rostropovich accomplished in his lifetime. He made dozens of recordings and performed countless concerts all over the world, keeping a touring schedule of superhuman intensity. Cello was not his only talent: Aside from his second career as a conductor, he was also a pianist of professional standard, and he once bragged to author Claude Samuel in Mstislav Rostropovich & Galina Vishnev-skaya: Russia, Music, and Liberty, “I don’t think there’s a profession I couldn’t have taken up.” He somehow also found the time to teach several generations of cellists who went on to become top soloists and pedagogues in their own right, including Karine Georgian, David Geringas, Natalya Gutman, Frans Helmerson, Gary Hoffman, Mischa Maisky, Ivan Monighetti, Tanya Remenikova, Wendy Warner, and of course Jacqueline du Pré.

He is also responsible for the fact that the cello repertoire more than doubled in size over the course of his lifetime and career. A passionate advocate for new music, he formed close relationships with the best composers of his time, starting with Sergei Prokofiev. This extraordinary intersection of two lives—Rostropovich was in his early 20s, Prokofiev at the end of his career—resulted in Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata, the unfinished Concertino, and the Symphony-Concerto, a reworking of an earlier, neglected cello concerto that Rostropovich had rediscovered.



Rostropovich is said to have given a copy of Popper’s High School of Cello Playing to the irascible composer, who had already rejected most of the major cello concertos as inspiration. The resulting acrobatic virtuosity of the Symphony-Concerto made it for many years almost the sole province of Rostropovich. Thanks to his expansion of the cello technique as a performer and teacher, however, standards have risen to the point that the Symphony-Concerto is now core repertoire and often features in cello competitions.

Prokofiev’s work in turn influenced the cello concertos of Shostakovich, with whom Rostropovich had enjoyed a close friendship since his days in Shostakovich’s composition class at the Moscow Conservatory. (Rostropovich related to Claude Samuel that Shostakovich had called his mother early in his studies to try to persuade her to switch her son’s major from cello to composition.)


In all, Rostropovich’s collaborations with composers resulted in 77 new cello concertos, 52 new works for cello and piano, and 20 for solo cello. Many of the composers are no longer prominent, but virtually every one of the top European composers of the second half of the 20th century wrote something for Rostropovich’s cello. Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Benjamin Britten, Henri Dutilleux, Lukas Foss, Giya Kancheli, Aram Khachaturian, Witold Lutosławski, Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Pärt, Krzysztof Penderecki, Astor Piazzolla, Rodion Shchedrin, Alfred Schnittke, Galina Ustvolskaya, Iannis Xenakis—none of their great works for cello would have existed without Rostropovich’s requests, encouragement, and transcendent ability to extend the technique.

Perhaps Rostropovich’s greatest lifetime achievement was his humanitarianism. He fell foul of the Soviet government on many occasions until he went into exile in the 1970s, in a large part because of his championing of the dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He became an icon for human rights, perhaps most famously on the occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when he spontaneously traveled to the newly liberated city, borrowed a chair from a guard, and played Bach for the bystanders without announcing himself. It was not long until he was recognized, however, and television journalists showed up at the scene to record this magical moment for posterity.

Since that day, the figure of a lone cellist playing Bach amid ruins as an act of protest has become a cultural trope in the popular imagination, a symbol of hope and beauty in a world full of ugliness. Rostropovich’s message of hope and justice is more important today than ever before, and even if his cello has been silenced forever, his legacy of influence remains.

Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten
Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten