Cellist / Conductor Mstislav
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.”
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
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 gold medal.
BD: Do you always
do exactly what the composer wants, or do you put in your own heart?
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 the score?
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 idea.
BD: Is the
letter to you, or is the letter to the orchestra, or is the letter to
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
-- 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.”
MR: This is
Shostakovich speaking. That’s why I tell you each word exactly as
he told it to me.
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.]
Shostakovich with you when you conduct his music?
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.
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.
BD: Does your
recording satisfy him now that he is in Heaven?
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?
Purpose??? 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?
Optimistic, 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
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!
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
with Yehudi Menuhin
and Isaac Stern.]
BD: So what
you want is the human contact.
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.
[Laughs] Should you perform music for Mr. Gates, and get him to
put more emotion into his devices?
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. [Both laugh]
BD: Is the
music that you play for everyone? Are your concerts for everyone?
MR: Yes, for
BD: Even the
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 cellists?
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
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. 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.
© 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
and again in 2013, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2005
and 2007. This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this
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.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
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
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.