The Song of Slava
The Aria of Mstislav Rostropovich's Life Is Played Double-Time, Con Molto Sentimento
By Lynn Darling
Washington Post Staff Writer
Once, Dmitri Shostakovich said to him: Everything in life can hurt you, Slava. Friends will betray you, and so can your wife. Your children will leave you. But music will never betray you. Be faithful to her, said the composer to the cello virtuoso, and she will fill up your life.
"A life can be dedicated," says Mstislav Rostropovich. "People who dedicate their lives to something, that is the first step to never being alone."
He is 55 years old. Long ago his life became a legend, soaring over continents and the vagaries of history. He was born in Baku, a city on the Caspian coast, the son of a pianist and a cellist; he began to play the piano when he was 4, the cello when he was 8. Fame came early, and the honors that it reaped made for a glorified life in the Soviet state. Honored by both politicians and peers, he moved easily in the circle of genius. Shostakovich wrote music for him, as did Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten. After Casals, some said he was the greatest living cellist.
A champion, too: his defense of the embattled Alexander Solzhenitsyn brought him persecution and, finally, exile. When he came to Washington in 1978 as the musical director of the National Symphony, he was immediately embraced by a city that usually likes its legends carved in marble. He charmed his public with his ebullient personality, the prodigality of his hugs and kisses, his enormous appetite for life and for work.
"Work is life, work is living," he says. "I take in oxygen and I exhale this carbon dioxide and I hear the result, the sounds which are as oxygen to me." Which is why there are those who wonder what will happen at the end of this year when Rostropovich begins a long-planned sabbatical from his hectic, globe-scouring schedule.
He thrives on both the sacred and profane: a religious man, a man of mystical dedication to his music, he is a remorseless practical joker, with an eloquent vocabulary of vulgarities and an unerring ear for a ribald story. At times, say observers, he seems caught up in his celebrity, a prisoner of his own persona, the ebullient Rus- sian bear speaking the charmingly fractured English. At other times, he seems to do a send-up of that personality, playing to the stands. "You never really know what he's thinking," says one member of the orchestra, "what's in his heart of hearts. Sometimes the person he seems closest to is Pooks, his little dog. And yet, he's irresistible."
His friends say he is terribly vain. His mother, he once told his translator, Nadya Efremov, carried him for 10 months instead of the usual nine, and he used to ask her why, if she was taking all that time, didn't she spend more time on his face? "Because I was working on your hands," she told him.
His hands are beautiful. The long, muscular fingers, sculpted by the years it took to master his instrument and the great strength that it takes to make its music, taper off gracefully, and the scars and calluses that such music must exact are not noticeable.
Laughter and passion lend fire to his face, so that it makes no difference that he is not a handsome man, pale with the fatigue that bites at his heels, with the fringe of white hair encircling the balding head, the lower jaw thrust forward, the blue eyes obscured by the severity of his black-rimmed glasses.
His humanity is the characteristic most often mentioned by his friends. One evening, after a concert, Rostropovich paid a visit to a funeral home where a stagehand lay in an open casket. After taking the dead man's hand in his for a moment, he sat down before the coffin and, taking his cello, played two of the slow movements from the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello.
He lives in a rarefied world, one in which the intense spiritual and physical demands of his art are counterpointed by the luxury and the sensual ease that lubricates a celebrated life. In Washington, he rents a suite in the Watergate Hotel. In Paris, he owns a luxurious apartment. He travels on a Swiss passport and owns property in England, France, Switzerland and the United States. Now that Russia is no longer home, there seems to be no place that has com- pelled his attachment, framed his life. Rostropovich has long been a citizen of the world and for him the global village is a comfortable and elegant place.
Still there seems to be a touch of isolation, the inevitable legacy of exile. In part it is the detachment of the artist; cloistered since childhood by the discipline demanded by perfection, he seems oddly vulnerable. In part it is language: Rostropovich is an extremely well- read man, whose conversation is studded with references to Goethe, Shakespeare, Dickens and Dreiser, and a finely honed mind chafes restlessly behind the limits imposed by his confrontations with English.
Most of the time he travels with Nadya Efremov, an unflappably patient and perceptive woman who functions as translator, companion, amanuensis and conduit for the Rostropovich world view. But when he is on his own, trying to speak his thoughts, he sighs at times with frustration. "I am like bottle of fine champagne brought next to fire with stopper in very tight," he says. He has prom- ised the orchestra's executive director Henry Fogel that when he returns from his sabbatical he will "speak like Shakespeare." Then I will know what to do with that word 'the,'" he smiles ruefully. "I will be able to say 'the National Symphony,' and know everything is in right order."
Rostropovich has lived outside of Russia for eight years now. No, he says emphatically, "there is not anything I miss in Russia. Even the memories of friends, he says, "are a little wormy. Because there is always the thought--how many of them came to my defense when I really needed it? Ah, that's important. Because you believe in your friends and if you are in a difficult position, if you cry each night and think of suicide, you think you must have some friends who will explain to the government. But there wasn't a single soul who came to my defense."
He thinks back to the reasons behind his exile: the decision to shelter Solzhenitsyn and the letter he wrote protesting the government's treatment of him. "In contrast to other artists," he says, "I truly do not feel that I am a dissident. I did not run away from my country, and I am not guilty of anything before my people. I had tried to a very little degree to express some of the things I was thinking in my own country. And I wanted to say these things for the benefit of my own country. And the only mistake we made according to the Soviet government was in allowing Solzhenitsyn to live in our house. But to my dying day, I will not consider that a mistake. I'm very proud of that."
Other memories are less bitter--the Mass celebrated before his departure, the stu- dents and friends who streamed into the church under the watchful eyes of the KGB. And of what it was like in London, the first few weeks, when there were no concerts to play and he was afraid to walk in the streets before he borrowed money for a life insurance policy, afraid that something would happen to him and that his wife, Galina, still in Russia, would be abandoned.
Galina Vishnevskaya also has her memories: of what it was like when the Russian government denied her husband the great halls and the orchestras and excised his name from the books--Rostropovich, who had been awarded the Lenin Prize and the Stalin Prize, who was named the People's Artist of the USSR. "He stopped believing in himself, he lost all faith in himself," she said. "You could see it in the way that he sat on the stage. A woman who loves and knows her husband doesn't have to see the cello bow fall from his hand. It was as if his soul was being killed within him."
She is a proud, handsome woman, imperial in her manner, strong in her opinions, fierce in her loyalties. For more than 20 years she was the star soprano of the Bolshoi Opera, but when her husband wrote the letter condemning the state's treatment of their friend, Solzhenitsyn, she approved his action and suffered his fate. When they left Moscow, Vishnevskaya sang with the Paris Opera and other companies, but opera stars, more than cello virtuosos, are troubled by time. Last autumn she retired from her opera career, ending it with a farewell performance of "Eugene Onegin," conducted by her husband. "I never liked being a wandering star, going from stage to stage."
They were married in 1955, four days after they met. "We got married so quickly, it took me more time than that to learn how to pronounce his name correctly," she says.
They had two children-- Olga, a cellist, and Elena, a pianist, who live now in New York--and two careers that swept them back and forth across continents and, when time permitted, into each other's arms.
Now Vishnevskaya spends much of her time in Paris, and her trips to America are brief and contained. Diplomatically she ignores a question about her opinion of this country. "I love Paris, Paris is my home . . . I was born in Leningrad, and at the height of its beauty, it was like Paris."
Theirs is an old-world marriage, intricate and polished by the long years in which two such temperaments have come to know and under- stand each other. Still, Vishnevskaya does not pretend to comprehend her husband's savage schedule. "He works so much--it's not necessary," she says. "But I can't change him."
He makes it up to her with the grand, romantic gesture. In secret he built a country house for her, near a Russian Orthodox monastery in Upstate New York, a landscape that reminded him of Russia. One night, after a concert in Paris, he retired to her dressing room, telling her he was taking a bath. Instead, he wrote down the name of every vial of perfume and bottle of makeup on her table, in order to recreate the dressing table in the new house. For a moment he thought he was going blind, but it was only the steam rising from the tub that created the fog. He had a portrait painted of her most cherished music teacher and hung it in her bedroom. And then, when it all was ready, he drove her there one night, without telling her where they were going.
He parked the car in what looked, to her, to be the middle of nowhere, and prepared to read her a poem he had written. But it was so dark he had to read it by the light of the headlights, and when he dropped to his knees she screamed, convinced he had had a heart attack. He led her up the road, and suddenly the house appeared ablaze with hundreds of blue lights he had had placed in the windows, and the forest burst forth with the "Italian Capriccio," by Tchaikovsky. "It was marvelous, marvelous!" he says, delighted by the memory. "You could hear 200 trumpets!"
"I've dedicated myself to Galina and she's dedicated herself to me," Rostropovich says. "You must leap into love like into a chasm. There is a certain danger in the world when romance disappears. If you look at it just on the factual side, it is just man, woman, man, woman-- a million totally colorless pairs who simply fulfill physical needs. But they steal from themselves, not in dollars but by becoming poor in something God gave to them. When they could be Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Natasha and Pierre, Don Quixote and Dulcinea!
"I am old enough to understand this now," he says. "Age always meets youth halfway; while youth has mindless temperament and age has abtract ideas, somewhere there is a balance and that's the happiest time of all, when you don't throw yourself like a dog at a cat or lose your reason, but still understand that some things are very special."
He is used to life as a celebrity; in Russia his position not only brought him privileges, but demonstrated the ultimate reverence--"I was able to drive through red lights," he says, over an elegant dinner at Dominique's. "Russian government does give status to great artists."
In this country, the peripatetic travel and gilded isolation lead to eccentric encounters with popular culture. "I am very familiar with Holiday Inns and of course with McDonald's," he says. I really think it is a very good across-the- board sort of standard."
He loves boxing: "For me it is important that if someone hits first, it's important to hit back. Unfortunately, it is a sin, but I like that juxtaposition of strength, the fact that there is equal opportunity on both sides." And the film star Deanna Durbin: "She helped me in my discovery of myself. You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronized to see Deanna Durbin. I tried to create the very best in my music to try and recreate, to approach her purity."
He has this assessment of the American character: "Americans like their comfort. For instance, if it's snowing, they don't come to concert or to the theater. I have secret weapon for the Soviets to use against the United States which will enable them to bring their tanks right into the middle of the city without shedding a drop of blood, and that is just to dump some snow on Washington."
Suddenly there is a small commotion, and a flash of gold and glitter descends on the table. A small troupe of beautifully dressed black women stops to compliment Rostropovich, and soon he is on his feet talking about his love for spirituals and telling them a joke about managers and parakeets. After many hugs they leave. Rostropovich has a question--who were they? By the time he finds out, singer Patti ("Voulez- vous couchez avec moi, ce soir?") LaBelle is already out the door, although the starlight manufactured from so improbable a conjunction in the cultural constellation lingers for a while longer.
Beethoven is much on his mind. "Ah, my hero. The Soviet composers all compromised, but not him. I have 75 honorary titles, but the most honored is that I am an honorary member of the House of Beethoven. I went to his house in Bonn; I saw the trumpets he had to put in his ears. You can't imagine-- he was forced to wear it, Beethoven! Who was a pearl of God. For him to suffer was his fate. It wasn't enough to take a leg--God takes his hearing. After those trumpets, what's the worth of a poor review?"
It is late, the restaurant closed long ago, the sleepy waitress is waiting to go home, and after a minuet over the check (they undercharge him, he overtips), he is ready to go home to his little long-haired dachshund and to the scores that wait to be studied, the music swirling in his head in the silence of the empty apartment and the solitary night.
Rostropovich has been the conductor and the music director of the National Symphony for five years. "There is much more great music for symphony than for cello," he says through Efremov. "That is one of the reasons I started to conduct. I had wanted, before I left this world for another--whether it be better or worse--to leave it having touched with my hands and my brain the great varied repertoire for orchestra. The more I touch genius music, that's joy for me inside."
He conducts with his face and with his hands, his expression reflecting the changes in the music's mood, his hands raised, fingers curled, as if he would pull the music from the heavens. "With an orchestra, I can't produce the sound myself--I can only influence the people in the orchestra," he says. And in this case, it all depends on the conductor: which of his own personal qualities does he want to use? It's not simply physical movement. You must hypnotize the group into understanding your interpretation. 'Softly' has such an infinite variety--it can be a very tender sound or one that is full of horror."
The initial reaction to the idea of Rostropovich as conductor involved a great deal of skepticism; coming to conducting so late, the argument went, he would never develop the necessary and complicated skills or master the vast repertoire. Since his debut, he has surprised many of his critics. Although there are those who feel that he will never attain the level of a Bernstein or a von Karajan, he is still growing as a conductor.
Complaints about his conducting within the orchestra center around the fact that he has not always studied the scores as thoroughly as he should and that at times his lack of physical grace translates into a certain confusion over interpretation. "An orchestra responds to a conductor's physical manner the way a woman responds to physical grace in a man," says one orchestra member. "Sometimes, looking at Slava is looking into the face of panic. There are times when all an orchestra needs is a sense of confidence from the conductor, and that's not always there."
But what is always there is the intensity and expressiveness he brings to the music. "He once was talking to me about other orchestras, about how if the orchestra doesn't always play perfectly together or the attacks aren't always precise, it didn't matter," recalls Hugh Wolff, the symphony's gifted young associate conductor. What was important was the quality of the sound, the spiritual quality. And in that sense he is a genius of a conductor."
As a cellist, his reputation is assured. "He has already made a major contribution to music because of his personal magnetism and his awesome cello playing," observes Miles Hoffman, a violist with the symphony. "Every major composer in the second half of the 20th century has written something for him. His enrichment of the literature is really remarkable."
What does Rostropovich want to be remembered for? "Nothing," he says. "If someone said, 'You can no longer play music,' I would drive a taxi so I have money to pay people to listen to me. I live on music like a worm inching along the earth. Does it care what people will say about him?"
He is a performing artist, and without the pure and in- candescent moments, in which he is consumed by the music, he couldn't exist. Between concerts, he is like a sailor on shore leave, drinking great draughts of the world but just passing through. Rostropovich says he believes in God, but it is music that supports his faith; if there can be something so perfect and incorporeal as sound, he reasons, then souls exist as well, and a heaven to receive them.
He lives between the lines of his grueling, self-imposed schedule, neatly typed each day in Russian. He lives, says, Nadya Efremov, "flat out on the palm of God's hand."
Late on a cold and icy night in Scranton, Pa., Mstislav Rostropovich sat in the banquet room of the Masonic temple and discussed the nature and purity of sound with the president of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic Orchestra, the Rev. Andrew McGowan.
"Once I asked Picasso, 'Pablo, there exists bad color?' And he said no. 'Same with sound,' I said. 'No such thing.' Is like priest, a very stupid priest with beautiful voice. I not coming to that church again. But problem is not with voice. That's ne plus ultra."
Around him crowded the current wave of adulation-- 550 patrons of the orchestra, who had heard him play the Dvorak Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in B Minor and who now stood in line to make his acquaintance and get his autograph, having paid $50 a plate for the privilege. Rostropovich would jump up to greet them and then return to the point he was making, contrapuntal conversations, bass and treble.
"Well, we've finally made it into the fast lane!" exulted McGowan. Rostropovich had come to Scranton to play the benefit concert as a favor to Wolff, who is also the philharmonic's music director and conductor. "I make big squeeze for you so that they give lots of money to your orchestra," Rostropovich had promised him, and he attacked his assignment with relish.
"Why there are so many beautiful women in Scranton?" Rostropovich asked a woman in black velvet whose dark hair was threaded with red roses, and he jumped up to kiss her. "What is your name, darling?" he asked her, and when she told him, he signed her program with a flourish, the horizontal bar of the T slashing the length of his last name--a signature designed, he said, so that his name might shelter under a cross.
At the dinner, the mayor made him an honorary citizen of Scranton, they gave him a plaque and he made a speech. "I hope you have already drunk enough champagne to understand my English," he began. "My dear friends, you must have feeling you are soldiers for music, especially then we are coming in dangerous time for whole world. From bottom of my heart, I am grateful to you for this dedication to beauty."
"You teach people to listen," said McGowan, and Rostropovich told him what it was like when he toured the villages of Russia and played in cold little clubs in places so small there was no orchestra or even a piano to accompany him but only an accordion. "And in some of these village, they have never seen cello before and the people are very loud talking. And when I play more active, more loud, the people are more loud speaking. So then I try something differently. I play very quietly and immediately they speak softly. You should remember this," he told McGowan, "if you have this problem in your church."
He signs an autograph for a wide-eyed 10-year old "colleague" and then some cello studies the clear glass candle holder and the flame flickering within. "I like that candle," he says. "Is beautiful. You think about the fire that man has kept alive through all this time. It is metaphor, I think, for surviving troubles."
"I've been waiting all evening to meet you," broke in a loud-voiced woman who had come up behind him.
"I'm her husband, but you can kiss her all you want," said the man standing next to her.
"Ah, my darling," said Mstislav Rostropovich.
© 1983 The Washington Post Company