Michael Dirda
A 20th-century master shines even more brightly through the eyes of his students.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 13, 2008


The Musical Life of the Great Cellist, Teacher, and Legend

By Elizabeth Wilson

Ivan R. Dee. 385 pp. $35

Back in the late 1960s, a studious English major wandered into Oberlin College's Finney Chapel to attend an evening concert. Despite his long hair, this young man knew almost nothing about classical music. But he was eager to hear more of it, having recently been wowed by a heart-stopping performance of Sibelius's Second Symphony, performed by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of George Szell. This particular Saturday night, however, the stage was bare, except for a single performer and his piano accompanist. And thus it happened that in Finney's hushed darkness, I first heard solo cello music, played by a balding guy with an unpronounceable first name. He struck me as pretty good.

To most of the world, Mstislav Rostropovich was a little more than that. He was arguably the greatest cellist of the 20th century, his only serious rival being the long-lived Pablo Casals. In certain pieces one might prefer Pierre Fournier, J¿nos Starker or Yo-Yo Ma, but the jovial Slava, as almost everyone called him, made virtually the entire cello repertory his own. He promoted and commissioned music for his instrument, being the dedicatee of more than 200 works by composers as varied and distinguished as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Penderecki and Arvo Part. What's more, as a teacher Rostropovich directed the emerging talents of numerous Russian virtuosi, among them Mischa Maisky, as well as inspiring prodigies like the dazzling and joyful Jacqueline du Pr¿.

Rostropovich: The Musical Life of the Great Cellist, Teacher, and Legend isn't a full biography. Its subtitle is exact: While Elizabeth Wilson does offer a pr¿cis of her subject's life, she mainly focuses on Rostropovich's first three decades as a professional musician. There is almost nothing about his 17-season career as chief conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra here in Washington. Instead, Wilson recreates the musical scene in the Soviet Union up to 1974, when Rostropovich went into exile in the West. Before this, especially during the 1950s and '60s, Slava contributed his own inimitable luster to the galaxy of Russian musical superstars, among them his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, the violinist David Oistrakh and, by no means least, "the other Slava," the breathtaking pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

At the heart of Wilson's book are its chapters about "Class 19" -- the name for Rostropovich's cello seminar at the Moscow conservatory. Drawing on oral testimony as well as her own memories as his student, Wilson demonstrates that the great cellist wasn't just a dazzling performer, he was also a profound and inspiring teacher. As Wilson writes, "the Russian pedagogical tradition had always embraced the notion that an artist was responsible not only to the great masters of the past, but towards succeeding generations . . . . Artists were seen as a link in a chain -- part of a continuous, living tradition." Just so, Rostropovich learned his instrument from his father and uncle, both distinguished cellists. In his own classes, he imparted lessons beyond those of proper fingering and smoother legato. "It's the music that's important," he stressed, "not the bow stroke." Above all, he repeatedly urged his students to regard themselves as feeling human beings and to meditate deeply on every score, so as to engage with each work as passionately as possible. "You must perform the piece you are playing NOW as if it was the best piece of music in the world."

There is much in this book about the artistic bureaucracy of the Soviet Union -- it's just as awful as you would imagine -- as well as accounts of famous concerts with Richter and others. But Wilson's grand theme remains Rostropovich's absolute commitment to the cause of music, and his consequent demand for the best from his students and himself. As a man, he possessed a great-souled Russian appetite for life and a humane generosity of spirit. During his early years, for instance, Rostropovich periodically took his artistry into the provinces, playing concerts in factories and city halls. Once he came to a town near the Chinese border, where he was to perform in a huge aircraft hangar that could accommodate an audience of 4,000. But only five people turned up, and the concert's organizers decided to cancel the event. "However, Rostropovich found out that these five men and women had trudged many kilometers over the taiga especially to hear him play; they were former ZEKs (political prisoners), who had served long terms in the camps and were still living in distant exile. Without hesitation, Rostropovich told the organizers that he would play for this small audience without a fee: he asked for five chairs, invited the men onto the stage and played his full program for them . . . adding as many encores as they requested."

Despite his services to the Soviet Union, Rostropovich fell into disfavor when he offered lodging and support to the sick and outcast novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Soon thereafter, his concerts and those of his wife were regularly canceled and neither was allowed to leave the country. With heavy hearts, the couple were finally granted exit visas, and, at the age of 47, Rostropovich trudged onto a plane for England with two cellos and a single suitcase. Three years later, in 1977, he was appointed conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, beginning a new life as one of Washington's most beloved artistic monuments.

Rostropovich never taught formal cello courses again. But this fine book preserves the heart of what he brought to his Russian master classes: "The key to the student-professor relationship, in his view," writes Wilson, "was to combine an informal, personal approach with relentlessly high demands."

"The one thing he couldn't bear," another student, Anatoly Nikitin, recalls, "was indifference in performance. For him music represented the expression of something, a sentiment, a mood, and if one played without expressing one's own relationship to the music he found it intolerable."

Rostropovich told his classes that "the musical material has to correspond to the emotions you wish to convey. At home when you practice, you must define your task. You must be able to play the whole work through in your head, so that you understand how to search for the right sound and color. For instance, if the music conveys sadness, you have to go further in your definition of sadness: is it tenderly sad, inwardly tense, despondent, nostalgic, grieving or vulnerable? If you feel the mood in your mind, then you'll know how to reproduce it in sound; then you have only to check that the sound corresponds to what you hear in your inner ear. Your task, thus, is to organize sound within its musical framework."

This emphasis on emotional involvement pervades his pedagogy. Victoria Yagling recalls that when the class was learning Haydn's then recently rediscovered C major concerto, Rostropovich said: "You must play this music as if you were reading a Dumas novel, when you can't wait to turn over the page and discover what befalls the hero next." He once told the young Natalya Gutman that "she was unsuited to Rachmaninov's sonata, advising her, 'The sonata cannot suit itself to you, you have to adapt to it. You cannot be so dry, you should start crying as you play! You know there's nothing shameful about weeping to Rachmaninov's music, just as one can cry listening to Puccini.' " Similarly, Karine Georgian, nicknamed Rukha, recalls that she was once playing the Brahms E minor sonata in class. "It was all good in one sense, perfectly correct. But he evidently felt that the sound I produced did not stem from any inner emotion. Suddenly he turned to me and said, 'Rukha, you haven't shed many tears in your life!' This remark quite shocked me, and stayed with me for a very long time. Of course, I have made up for it over the rest of my life, with plenty of tears, but at the time he felt the need to shake me up."

Georgian adds that Rostropovich "insisted that we had to completely absorb and digest the material we studied. This process of assimilation was essential to becoming a musician, rather than remaining 'merely' a cellist. He also expected us to know the orchestral score of the concertos we learned, and would ask us here to match the sound of the clarinet or there to blend with the oboe or trumpet."

Rostropovich advocated maximum efficiency, declaring "I only practice the things I can't play, not the things I can play." Yet he possessed not only an astonishing memory but also a tireless capacity for work. As a young man he trained himself to get by on only three or four hours of sleep a night. Thus he would ask his students to learn difficult pieces by heart in impossibly short times. He might then test them in class "by deliberately trying to distract them and seeing if they could keep on playing. . . . It was obvious that Rostropovich himself possessed the greatest intensity of concentration in performance: he would boast that 'even if an elephant walked onto stage, I would take no notice and keep performing.' " He emphasized that one should view the concert platform "as a place of learning and discovery."

Some might fault Elizabeth Wilson's Rostropovich as being too reverential, at times even hagiographical. But most readers will be persuaded that Mstislav Rostropovich was every bit as grand and wonderful and humane as she portrays him. When the cellist sent his graduate students out into the world, he would invariably beg them, "Please do not forget the work we did together." How could they? He was clearly as unforgettable in the classroom as he was at the Kennedy Center -- and as he was at Finney Chapel, so long ago, when that young English major stood up at the end of his concert and clapped and clapped and clapped. *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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