27 April, 2007

An Artist and a Moral Leader

The comments found on just one page on YouTube upon the death of the great cellist and Russian dissident Mstislav Rostropovich give us a hint of the breadth and depth of his impact:

-Un grand musicien, un grand artiste un grand homme. Perte iréparable. Que son âme repose en paix
-R.I.P. you made our souls soar with your music.
-Such a wonderful example - an artist and a moral leader - such a rare combination. RIP
-Grandissimo maestro, ci hai deliziato con la tua musica, una grande perdita per il mondo. Riposa in pace
-Adieu rostropovitch, repose en paix
-RIP Slava. even in heaven, we know you'll continue to play on.
-Great Master I salute you. Your language is universal. Rest in peace
-Maestro Rostropovich, descanse en los beneplacitos brazos de la eternidad.
-I pray for the repose of the soul of Rostropovich

First, the dissident:

Rostropovich's sympathies against the Communist leaders of his homeland started with the denunciations of his teachers, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev during the Stalin era.

Under Leonid Brezhnev's regime, Rostropovich and his wife, the Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, sheltered the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in their dacha in the early 1970s.

The great Russian/Soviet composers and performers of the 20th century all suffered from attempts by the Tsars and the Soviets to control their artistic output. Not only was the melodic content controlled at times (i.e. mandated use or bans of certain folk and popular or political songs, etc), but there were even stylistic and formal restrictions.

Many composers resorted to subversion by encoding their music with secret anti-government messages through melodic fragments/distortions of ethnic songs or subtle changes to standard patterns of form/melody, which the average citizens easily decoded. Shostakovich and Prokofiev were particularly targeted and ended up defecting to the US, as did Rostropovich and many other Eastern European and Russian artists of that era, enriching American cultural life beyond measure [click for audio/video].

As a teacher and humanitarian, Rostropovich taught his students about more than the cello; he taught music itself, and did so with extraordinary generosity. His warm and ebullient personality enchanted all who met him, and his musical idealism never faded:
"The artist must forget the audience, forget the critics, forget the technique, forget everything, but love for the music. Then, the music speaks through the performance, and the performer and listener will walk together with the soul of the composer, and with God."

He's right. Though I can't hold a candle to Rostropovich as an artist, my best days at the organ or piano bench were always the ones I when I forgot the the audience, forgot my body, forgot the notes... and "walked" in another realm.

Fortunately for us, his performances have been recorded, and he invites us to walk with him at our leisure...
[Part II video--full of dazzling technique]

[Cross-posted at The Flight Deck]