T he life stories of Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya could be seen as an allegory illustrating the triumph of talent and strength of character over all manner of difficulties. Born in 1927 and 1926 respectively, they grew up in the repressive atmosphere of Stalinist society, and endured the hardships of the WWII years.
Vishnevskaya survived the harrowing conditions of Leningrad’s siege, and as a 16-year-old girl joined the city’s “blue division”, engaging in civic duties from mending sewage pipes to digging potatoes. Simultaneously she sang to entertain the troops, and within two years had become a soubrette star in Leningrad’s operatta theatre. Within a few years she was one of the principle sopranos of Moscow’s renowned Bolshoi Theatre.
Rostropovich’s musical career had a more conventional start. Born into a family of musicians, he studied cello with his father Leopold, and made his debut as a soloist with the orchestra at the age of thirteen. When war broke out, the family were evacuated from Moscow to Orienburg, where Leopold died, leaving his 15-year-old son as the family breadwinner. Rostropovich buckled down to making oil lamps to sell in the market, teaching cello and performing in concert- brigades. In 1943 he returned to Moscow and enrolled in the Conservatoire, studying cello with Dimitri Shostakovich. He finished the five year course in three.
After winning the prestigious All-Union Competition in December 1945, Rostropovich decided to concentrate on a performing career. He became the youngest of a generation of great Soviet artists whose reputation preceded them in the West. Making his debut in England and the USA in 1956, he emerged as the world’s foremost cellist.
From the start Rostropovich set himself two specific aims: to popularise the cello and to create a new repertoire for it. In the Soviet Union, he brought music “to the people”, arriving by river in remote settlements in Siberia and performing on the back of lorries in the Altai Steppe. But Rostropovich’s lasting fame is connected to his championship of contemporary composers, including Reinhold Glière, Nikolai Myaskovsky and Benjamin Britten.
In May 1955 both Rostropovich and Vishenskaya were sent to the Prague Spring Festival to represent Soviet music. A whirlwind romance ensued, leading to marriage within four days. Surprisingly, neither of them had heard the other perform, but ultimately it was their shared devotion to music which cemented their marriage.
Setting himself nearly impossible goals seemed to stimulate Rostropovich to achieve ever greater heights. In 1962 he created the first music festival in the Soviet Union in the town of Gorky. Rostropovich seemed to re-invent cello-playing after Witold Lutoslawski told him: “Don’t think of the cello, I am the cello.”
At home, Rostopovich’s fame as a performer was equalled by his repute as a teacher, and he found outlets for his questing musical nature by accompanying Vishnevskaya in recital at the piano. At
the Bolshoi Theatre in 1968 he directed Tchaikovsky’s Evgeniy Onegin and Vishenskaya performed the role of Tatyana.
Rostropovich’s open nature gained him thousands of fans. In 1968 he offered the persecuted writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn refuge in a small apartment on the grounds of his family dacha. In his support for Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich came into conflict with the Soviet authorities.
Effectively banned from foreign travel, he and Vishnevskaya were subject to a myriad of petty persecutions. In March 1974, the couple wrote to Brezhnev, asking permission to travel with their two daughters to the West on a two-year sabbatical. Little did they suspect on departure that they were leaving for a 16-year period of exile. In 1976 Rostropovich was appointed Musical director of the National Symphony orchestra of Washington, which he conducted for seventeen seasons.
It was as this stage that Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya bought their first property abroad, a flat in Paris where they recreated the atmosphere of Russian furniture, paintings and porcelain from the pre-revolutionary period. As citizens of the world, they also acquired other properties in the places where they worked, including a house in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and a flat in London.
A man of true humanitarian principals, Rostropovich had taken his cello to Berlin and played Bach suites as the Wall literally crumbled behind him. Indeed, the couple devoted much of their time to charitable work. The Vishnevskaya – Rostropovich Foundation was set up to provide medical care and equipment to sick children in Russia, while the Rostropovich Foundation was established to promote young musical talent. And, in 2001, the Vishnevskaya Opera Centre was founded with the aim of helping young singers gain experience and where Vishnevskaya taught and produced opera with intense dedication.
Stripped of Soviet citizenship in 1978, the couple returned to Russia to great acclaim only after the collapse of communism.