Cellist / Conductor Mstislav Rostropovich
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
This webpage presents the transcript of a conversation I was privileged to
have with cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. We met at Orchestra
Hall in Chicago at the end of May, 2004.
Most of my interviews which I have presented on my websites either begin
or end with a biography or obituary or appreciation of my guest. This
time, however, there is simply too much to say. Any meaningful discussion
of the life and accomplishments of this musician would at least double the
length of this page. So for anyone wishing to read the details and
statistics of his life, let me simply direct you to a Google search, which
will present pages of hits from which to choose.
Just as he is onstage, in person Rostropovich was a whirlwind, all energy
and exuberance. At the end of our conversation he apologized for his
English, and wished he had been able to speak in Russian. But I assured
him that it was fine, and that his thoughts came across. To that end,
I have smoothed out much of what he said. After understanding what
it was he was trying to say, I used as many of his words as possible and
made it flow smoothly.
As we were settling down to begin, he emphasized that we should have, “Simple
questions, and very simple responses. That’s all.”
Bruce Duffie: From
an ever-expanding repertoire of orchestral music, how do you decide which
you will play, and which you will not play?
For example, I don’t like to play Wagner operas. I like them enormously,
but I think that a very high performance standard exists for these operas.
I’ve completely another feeling for Tchaikovsky, because his operas have
been performed many, many times, but in ways so far from the ideas of Tchaikovsky,
of what he painted in his score. That’s why Tchaikovsky I’ll make with
great pleasure, by teaching the style and doing them complete. I conduct
with great pleasure other operas, and I will make something very special
for them. For example, I conducted Tosca of Puccini, and was very proud
because Nadia Boulanger was at my performance, and she made many compliments
to me in her book. That touched me very much. I conducted that
opera because I also found it something very special for me. Of course,
I perform compositions whenever a composer dedicates the score to me, such
as the Symphony Number Six of Schnittke,
for example. Also Timbres, espace,
mouvement, the composition for orchestra that Dutilleux did for me.
Lutosławski did for me another piece for orchestra, and there are many other
composers. Of course, I kept in contact with these composers, so that’s
why I know how composers would like their performances.
The Second Symphony, and Livre pour orchestre and the Cello Concerto which followed, were composed
during a particularly traumatic period in Lutosławski's life. His mother
died in 1967, and in 1967–70 there was a great deal of unrest in Poland.
This sprang first from the suppression of the theatre production Dziady, which sparked a summer of protests.
Later, in 1968, the use of Polish troops to suppress the liberal reforms
in Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring, and the Gdańsk Shipyards strike of 1970
(which led to a violent clampdown by the authorities), both caused significant
political and social tension in Poland. Lutosławski did not support the Soviet
regime, and these events have been postulated as reasons for the increase
in antagonistic effects in his work, particularly the Cello Concerto of 1968–70 for Rostropovich
and the Royal Philharmonic Society. Indeed, Rostropovich's own opposition
to the Soviet regime in Russia was just coming to a head. He shortly afterwards
declared his support for the dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Lutosławski
himself did not hold the view that such influences had a direct effect on
his music, although he acknowledged that they impinged on his creative world
to some degree. In any case, the Cello
Concerto was a great success, earning both Lutosławski and Rostropovich
accolades. At the work's première with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra,
Arthur Bliss presented Rostropovich with the Royal Philharmonic Society's
Do you always do exactly what the composer wants, or do you put in your own
MR: I’ll tell you.
Of course, I have enormous deep experience and connection with a collection
of composers. For example, my résumé now counts 135 world
premieres as cellist, and 87 as conductor. When my contact with a composers
starts, I sometimes cannot sleep nights. This is because when I play
his composition, he tells me, “Slava, you know, I think that this episode
would be better a little bit faster, and another episode would be better
if you play a little bit slower.” I don’t sleep because I think to
myself, “Why had I not, through the music, understood this before?”
When a composer gives to me music — symphonic music
or cello music — I’ll never play it on the cello immediately.
I only see this music, and read this music into my memory.
BD: You just read
MR: Yes, I read
the score because before I play it, I would like to be sure to know about
this composition, and understand what he says in this composition.
Only after that, when I understand it in my mind, I take my cello.
Then I already know which finger to use, and what is the sound, and which
voice I must use for that. First I must know idea of composer, and
secondly I come to interpretations because I want my interpretation to be
coming exactly from what composer would like. For me, that music from
a great composer is like a letter for me. These are also letters from
Brahms or from Bach. Like a letter, he says to me, “Slava, that’s very
slow and very soft here. That’s a very concentrated piano, and that’s mysterioso, and that’s animato,” etcetera. For me, that’s
what composer means there, and that’s the most important goal, the most important
BD: Is the letter
to you, or is the letter to the orchestra, or is the letter to the audience?
MR: Ah, that’s
it. This letter is coming to me. First, I must understand this
letter, and after that I interpret this letter, translate it to the orchestra
with gestures and with some kind of hypnosis... or even something different.
[Both laugh] I tell to the orchestra what the composer would like.
I have many, many contacts with composers... Not to take too much time, but
among the French composers are Dutilleux first, my dear friend, and Messiaen,
also Andre Jolivet, Jean Wiéner, George Auric, Henri Sauget, and many
another, many others. All these composers have dedicated music to me.
Then from Great Britain, I have two composers who dedicated things to me
— Sir William Walton, his last composition,
the one for cello and orchestra, and six compositions dictated to me by Benjamin
Britten. My understanding is not only for the compositions that were
dedicated to me, but also the War Requiem,
which he composed in the period of our friendship. This is why I know
exactly what he would like, what he says in this score.
|For the opening performance, the
War Requiem was intended that
the soloists should be Galina Vishnevskaya (a Russian), Peter Pears (an Englishman)
and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a German), to demonstrate a spirit of unity.
Close to the premiere, the Soviet authorities did not permit Vishnevskaya
to travel to Coventry for the event, although she was later permitted to
leave to make the recording in London. With only ten days' notice, Heather
Harper stepped in and performed the soprano role.
Although the Coventry Cathedral Festival Committee had hoped Britten would
to be the sole conductor for the work's premiere, shoulder pain forced his
withdrawal from the main conducting role. He did, however, conduct the chamber
orchestra, and this spawned a tradition of separate conductors that the work
does not require and Britten never envisaged. The premiere took place on
30 May 1962, in the rebuilt cathedral with the City of Birmingham Symphony
Orchestra, conducted by Meredith Davies (accompanying soprano and chorus),
and the Melos Ensemble, conducted by the composer (accompanying tenor and
baritone). At Britten's request, there was no applause following the performance.
It was a triumph, and critics and audiences at this and subsequent performances
in London and abroad hailed it as a contemporary masterpiece. Writing to
his sister after the premiere, Britten said of his music, "I hope it'll make
people think a bit."
The North American premiere was at Tanglewood, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting
the Boston Symphony Orchestra with soloists Phyllis Curtin, Nicholas
Di Virgilio, Tom Krause
and choruses from Chorus Pro Musica and the Columbus Boychoir, featuring
boy soprano Thomas Friedman. The Dutch premiere took place during the Holland
Festival, in 1964. The Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Netherlands
Radio Choir were conducted by Bernard Haitink; the
chamber orchestra (consisting of Concertgebouw Orchestra instrumentalists)
was conducted by Britten himself. The soloists were Vishnevskaya, Fischer-Dieskau
and Pears, in their first public performance together.
-- Names which are links refer
to my Interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
For practical reasons, performances of War
Requiem will change. Some conductors would like to show how
they think, and that’s why they conduct the same way in the big orchestra
and in the chamber orchestra. But that’s a mistake because in the chamber
orchestra they have just two soloists — tenor and baritone
— who are soldiers from the war. They are each other’s enemy,
and that’s why for first performance, the tenor was English, Peter Pears,
and the baritone, Fischer-Dieskau, was German. With the chamber orchestra,
that’s a completely different world and it’s more difficult than
conducting the big orchestra. Britten himself conducted
the chamber orchestra. It is a requiem for these people who have already
died. They are in the hearse together, near one another. They
made contact and said to each other, “I recognize you, that you killed me.
Why?” That’s a separate world with the chamber orchestra. When
I am conducting the big orchestra with the choir and the soprano soloist
— a part which was written for my wife, Galina — I
always invite friends who are better conductors than I am to conduct the
small orchestra. Many times it’s beloved friends, such as Seiji Ozawa
who conducted the small orchestra. About this Requiem, I did something interesting,
because I start to make a great friendship between Britten and Shostakovich.
I have copies of letters where Britten tells Shostakovich about me and Shostakovich
tells Britten about me. After the premiere of the Requiem, Ben give me the tape of this
performance, and a small score, and said, “Slava, maybe you give to Dmitri.
I would like it if he hears it and sees the score of my new composition.”
So when I came to Moscow, I gave to Shostakovich the score and this tape,
and I told him Ben would like you to hear this. Shostakovich, of course,
was always busy composing, and I thought that maybe after a week he would
call me. But he called after two days and said, “Slava, I must see
you!” When I came to him, he told me, “I have heard this War Requiem several times, and I must
tell you that it’s my very strong opinion that it’s one of the... no, THE
greatest composition of 20th century.”
BD: My goodness!
MR: This is Shostakovich
speaking. That’s why I tell you each word exactly as he told it to
led a three-week Shostakovich Festival with the Chicago Symphony to close
the 1998-99 season. The six orchestral programs were planned, right
down to the specific order of works, by the composer during the early 1960s
in conversations with Rostropovich. He already has presented fuller
versions of this festival in St. Petersburg, Tokyo and London, and is planning
a fifth for Amsterdam next year, but this is the first time he has presented
it in the U.S.]
BD: Is Shostakovich
with you when you conduct his music?
MR: Of course!
Of course! [Musing about current circumstances] Our genius composers
live a very tragic life. Mediocre composers have better life, and bad
composers in the Soviet Union have fantastic lives. [Both laugh]
That’s absolutely sure. I will not use names, but I know.
BD: That’s all
MR: Let me tell
you about the official awards. During his last five summers [1948-52],
I lived in the dacha of Prokofiev. On the 10th of February, 1948, there
was the absolute scandal. The Soviet government, the Communist Party,
Stalin, Zhdanov, railed against formalism in music, against Prokofiev, against
Shostakovich. “That’s very bad music; that’s not music for our people.”
From 1948 until ’51, not one of their compositions was performed. It
was forbidden to perform anything from Prokofiev and Shostakovich in Soviet
Union. When I lived in his dacha in that summer of ’48, after this
scandal, I was very, very good soldier for my idols Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
When we would walk together, Prokofiev would always tell me, “Slava, I don’t
want to die before I hear at last my version of War and Peace.” He made a version
for one night, but before this it was for two nights. He made his version
for one night, but he did not hear this in his life. That’s why it’s
very difficult to tell that if he is completely satisfied with my performances.
Does your recording satisfy him now that he is in Heaven?
MR: He doesn’t
know my recording, because I made recording after his death. But I
will ask him immediately when I see him, so meet me there. [Laughs]
I would have liked to perform this version of his War and Peace, one of the greatest operas
in century when he was still alive. [Rostropovich would conduct the work at the Bolshoi
in 1969 for the first time in the
composer's original version, prompting Shostakovich to comment, “The opera sounded as it should sound... Here
at last was a real conductor on the rostrum, a real musician and interpreter
of immense talent.” Shostakovich would contribute his own arrangement
of a bit of the music, as Rostropovich relates in the interview...]
In last scene, after Kutuzov, the Field Marshal, had won this great, great
war, he came into stage in the Bolshoi Theater with a live white horse, and
all of his army was in the Red Square. It’s a big stage in the Bolshoi
Theater, and it accommodated the Red Square scene. The orchestra in
the pit played a march for this moment, and when I’m conducting, I tell regisseur,
the stage director, it was such a fantastic scene, but it would be better
if this march were played not by the orchestra in the pit, but by a brass
band in the Red Square. The stage director says it was a fantastic
idea, but how would it be possible to realize this idea? I told him
that we must make a new arrangement, not for symphony orchestra, but for
a brass band. All the people were very excited about my idea, and the
Bolshoi Theater told me they had some musicians who could make the new orchestration.
That’s very good, I thought, but I also asked Shostakovich to make a new
score out of this march. When I started rehearsing it, I shed tears,
because it was such a phenomenal sound. Of course, that’s music.
After this performance he wrote an article, and for a long time no newspaper
would print this article. So Shostakovich called me after ten days
and said, “After your performance I could not sleep and I could not eat.
I wrote a critique for the newspaper, but because the newspaper will not
print it, I will give to you my new manuscript.” I must tell you that
this was very, very rare in my life. Never have I, as a conductor,
had so high compliments as made by Shostakovich. Now I have this manuscript
of this, which is his setting of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death.
* * *
BD: What is the
purpose of music?
There’s no purpose. It’s one of the greatest gifts for us from God.
That’s God’s gift to us, one language for all lands
with no need for a translator. I have difficulties explaining my ideas
in English, but when I conduct or play, it is so easy to explain what I feel
to the public for whom I perform. I come to practically the whole world,
but that’s not important. Maybe there’s some audience which is not
very educated in some way, far away from cities and arts centers, but in
any case, people understand this message perfectly. Of course, with
modern music, especially abstract music, it’s more difficult understand,
but music from geniuses is universal. For example, take Shostakovich.
When I perform his Tenth Symphony,
you see how emotional the public is. They understand this music.
Yes, I think that music is the instrument in our life, in our land, to make
our planet one family.
BD: Are you optimistic
about the future of music?
yes. Very optimistic because music is for people. But people
have different periods for life. In this period we make enormous progress
for electronics, so music is made and enjoyed differently. In older
times, contact between people was very, very difficult, before the airplane
and the supersonic jet. That’s why, for example, in a small village
in Russia, some young boy probably will only marry a girl not far away, maybe
50 kilometers from his village. Now, with modern transportation, that
is all different. You get enormous contact with others so
fast. That’s why there are so many mixed families — we
don’t stay separately in one nation. But of course, that’s changed
life at this point. I’ve used the Concorde more than 100
times — maybe several hundred times — because
I was music director in Washington for seventeen years. Always I take
Concorde from Paris to New York, and shuttle New York to Washington.
That’s phenomenal! My joke, which is a little bit famous, is that I
told my wife that if I died in Paris, she should immediately pay for an entire
Concorde plane. Take my body in the coffin on the Concorde to New York
with 100 of my dearest friends and family. Why? Because
the Concorde goes out at 11 o’clock in the morning from Paris, and arrives
at 8:30 in New York. I would arrive with them three hours
before I died! [Both have a huge laugh]
BD: Get an extra lease on life!
MR: Yes, yes!
[More laughter] Another electronic gadget now is the mobile telephone.
Now everything is computer, computer, computer. I don’t touch computer.
I avoid it, but the computer has changed life... and not only for the better.
I tell you why. Before, all that I know, all my information, I have
gotten from a teacher or from friends or family. That’s what you need.
Now I have grandchildren, and everything is from computer, all their information.
What’s missing is contact, human contact. For example, before, when
I had an interest for something, my friend would tell to me, “Fantastic,
interesting. I appreciate this thing, so here’s a contact for other
people who can give you more. That’s what he would give to me, and
I would give something to him. Now, the gift is the computer.
What can you give to computer?
[Vis-à-vis the photo at left, see my Interviews
with Yehudi Menuhin
and Isaac Stern.]
BD: Computers are
BD: So what you
want is the human contact.
MR: Exactly, exactly!
When someone speaks to me with their voice, I want to see their eyes as they
tell me about it. I need to see the emotion to appreciate what is being
said. But I don’t know for whom one can appreciate with a computer.
For Gates, maybe. For Mr. Gates, one must appreciate.
Should you perform music for Mr. Gates, and get him to put more emotion into
MR: I tell you,
I watch his father very much, because his father very nice. I have
correspondence with his father. He was at my concert in Seattle two
years ago. He is a very, very nice person. I know him, but all
the people who use computers don’t know whether he is nice or isn’t nice.
BD: Is the music
that you play for everyone? Are your concerts for everyone?
MR: Yes, for everyone.
BD: Even the new
MR: Even new music,
yes, because I’ll give my heart to these people. The people can accept
my heart or not accept my heart, but my job is to get a reaction for this
music. My action is that I play only compositions which I like.
I have maybe four exceptions in my life when I play compositions which I
not like enough, and I know that’s what my mistake was.
BD: How do you
decide if you like it or not before you perform it?
MR: I read these
letters which are in the score.
BD: What do you
look for in the score?
MR: From the score,
in my brain that’s the sound of this music. The sound of it.
I hear this music. That’s why I know about what this music means.
If I don’t understand, it’s only that some notes are without a reason.
I think maybe that there is a reason, but I do not say this composition sounds
for the people. I will not come on stage for that. Sometimes,
of course, it is a very talented composition, but I do not recognize it immediately.
Or it may be because I have no time now. I have some mountain of compositions
sent to me, but I have not time to see these. There’s not time, and
I suffer about that. I tell my assistant to apologize for not looking
at so many scores. Many years ago I made a concert in Buenos Aires,
Argentina. One young composer come to me and said, “You touch my heart,
and I have composed something for you.” I see that it’s Grand Tango for Cello and Piano.
It was not a dance tango, but a large piece. The composer was Astor
Piazzolla! [Both laugh] [Piazzolla
is actually six years older than Rostropovich!] Many years later
a friend asked me why I did not play this work. “He is a
very good composer who dedicated it to you, and it’s been in print
for many years!” I had forgotten all about it. When
I came back to Buenos Aires with the National Symphony, I was
in the car which had stopped for a red traffic light. All kinds of
small children came up to the car and asked for a little bit of beef to eat.
They were beautiful, small children! After my concert, the sponsors
give me such a dinner! I never had such dinner in my life! There
was a mountain of the best caviar from Russia, fantastic! But after
it, I left thinking about these small children. I told some friends
that two years later I would be coming for a recital in the Teatro Colon.
I asked them to help organize this. I would not take money for this
concert, but I asked that they take the money and give it to children who
ask for food. So I came and made my recital, and in this recital, as
the last piece I played that Tango
of Piazzolla. I changed the cello part a little bit and asked him if
he approved, and he was delighted. I also apologized that I had not
played his beautiful piece many years ago. But after that concert,
we had much money for the children!
Rostropovich with Rodion Shchedrin.
To read my Interview with Shchedrin, click HERE.
Rostropovich with Luciano Berio.
To read my Interview with Berio, click HERE.
BD: Does it please
you when a composition which is dedicated to you is then played by other
MR: Yes, that happens.
One time a composer wrote something for me and said he would wait until I
had a chance to perform it. I told him that even though it was dedicated
to me, he should have another performer, a younger performer do it.
this point I asked to hear him say his name. He obliged, and I was
delighted to tell him I had been doing it correctly all during my radio career!
MR: You know, all
my life I suffer about my first and last name. How I suffer!
I tell you why. I never refuse with my autograph. If someone
asks me, I give, but it is so long! If many people are coming, for
example, I try to make my autograph so it is possible to read, to understand
that I wrote it. I’m so jealous of ‘Mr. Smith’
who has a short autograph! [Both laugh] I remember once being
with Herbert von Karajan. He makes his signature so no one could possibly
read it. I told him, “When people are asking for this, you should let
them know that’s your signature.” He said, “Oh, I don’t know.
I suppose I should do that.” [Both laugh] So I make it possible
to read my name. [Examples of both
signatures are shown below.]
BD: One last question.
Is conducting fun?
Enormous emotion. I tell you why, because music just comes to my soul.
Old cello compositions I’ve already played, and the premieres. You
understand how many classical parts I play, all the great repertoire of the
cello. That’s already my cello sound, with orchestra, or with piano,
that’s already full of my nature. Also, for 35 years I accompany my
wife on piano. That’s another kind of music which comes to my soul.
Now that my wife does not sing anymore, she hears our records and asks me,
“Slava, how can you play piano? I don’t understand.” For thirty-five
years I accompanied her, but now she does not understand! [See photo at left.] I have a good
time. For me, music, opera, symphony, that’s what I needed. That’s
what makes me have a full satisfaction in my life.
BD: Thank you for
all that you have given us.
MR: With great
© 2004 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in his dressing room, backstage at
Orchestra Hall, Chicago, on April 30, 2004. Portions were broadcast
on WNUR the following year, and again in 2013, and on Contemporary Classical
Internet Radio in 2005 and 2007. This transcription was made in 2017,
and posted on this website at that time. My thanks to Sergey
Zaks for his help in preparing this presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final
moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have
also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues
his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other
interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call
your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with
comments, questions and suggestions.