|This article is reprinted from the Spring 1999 issue of FIDELIO Magazine.
We carry out a divine service with our music
Fidelio: Mr. Rostropovich, for nearly forty years, youthe world-famous cellisthave also experienced an equally great career as a conductor. Does this mean that you became a conductor without ever having properly learned conducting?
Since my youth, it was my dream to become a conductor and not a cellist. When I was somewhere between eight and nine years old, my father, who also was a cellistby the way, he played much better cello than Iplayed often in the orchestra at a resort during the summer; I believe he did that only so that wehis wife and two childrenmight have a vacation, since we simply had no money for normal vacations.
Unfortunately, my father died of a heart attack when he was very young; that was 1942, and he was just 50 years old. He was an unusually strong personality, and always said: If the people need me, then they will come to me. He was that certain of his abilityand yet, no one came.
Fidelio: Was he very much embittered when he died?
Now, because our family was very poor, my father accepted a position every summer in a small resort orchestra; that was in southern Russia, in Zaporozhye, and also in Slavyansk. It was there in Slavyansk, in 1940, that I played as a soloist with an orchestra for the first timeit was the cello concerto by Camille Saint-Saëns.
Fidelio: And with that began, at 13 years of age, your career as a cellist?
From the start, the conductors fascinated me a great deal. One of the first taught me transposition, at age six or seven; that is, reading the clarinet voice, the brass instruments, and so on. And, from that time on, I dreamt of becoming a conductor. Up until age 13, I would conduct old recordings; for example, the symphonies of Tchaikovsky. But, my father insisted that I become a cellist, and he also taught me. So I became a cellist, and not a conductorbut I never gave up my old dream. At first, in fact, I had no time for it, and also I wanted to finish up my musical education quickly. As a rule, students come to the Conservatory at age 18, and study there for five years. Now, I had difficulties with the final examination for the first term; of course not with cello playing, but in the theoretical division ...
Fidelio: So, you were what Mozart called a solid cellist?
First, I worked with the composer Alexanderin Russia, there are two famous musicians by the name of Alexander: One conducted the Red Army Chorus, and was for me, naturally, only an amateur. But the other was a true composer. And his wifealthough not a professional musicianwas a very brilliant teacher and ideal pedagogue. She taught conducting technique to me and other students.
At the same time, I began lessons with Leo Ginsburg, one of the most famous teachers at the Conservatory. Of course, these were private lessons, since I was then no longer a student, but already a successful working cellist. Ginsburg was absolutely the best teacher of conducting in the entire Conservatory. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky had been his student, as well as all the other famous Russian conductors. Ginsburg was, himself, not a great conductor; but, as a teacher, he was the best. So I went to his house, and he was very enthusiastic. And he did a very unusal thing with me: his instruction began with conducting string quartets.
Fidelio: Which quartets were those?
Fidelio: How did that work? Did you bring recordings with you?
Fidelio: Its also very interesting, on this account, because historically the orchestra, to some extent, developed from the four-voices of the string section. So the string quartet, so to speak, shaped the kernel of the orchestra, such that the other instrumentsespecially the woodwinds and hornsgrouped around it.
Fidelio: The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk of Shostakovich?
Previously, Shostakovich had observed me at rehearsals. Afterwards he came to me, very excited, and went directly into details: While at such-and-such passage, I did not hear the bassoon strongly enough, and thought, that needs to be heard more clearly, at that very moment, you wonderfully brought the bassoon into greater prominence. It happened somewhat similarly in reference to the pianissimo: for at the beginning, the orchestra played mezzoforte instead of mezzopiano, and thus the later pianissimo-passage relatively too quickly became too loud. That is the most difficult thing, to get an orchestra to play truly piano, or, then again, pianissimo.
I still remember vividly a discussion with the famous pianist Heinrich Neuhaus, who in his development debuted on the piano and one after another struck up a key in in pianissimo and in forte-fortissimo and asked: How many gradual differences are there between these two tones? The greatest difficulties in music belong to this, to really work out these many, many gradations.
I always spend a great deal of time working out the dynamic shadings, when I work with an orchestra. I let them first play piano, then mezzopiano, mezzoforte, then forte, fortissimo, ... and through this, it is for the most part clear, that no more increase is possible from f to ff, let alone a further increase to fff
Shostakovich was not only completely excited about this rehearsal and the associated concert in Gorki, but he also then spoke later to friends about his appreciation of me as a conductor; and that naturally greatly helped me in my conducting career.
Later, I got a chance to conduct Tchaikovskys opera Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi Theater. I studied that with yet another teacher. After the first three teachersGinsburg, Kondrashin and Guzmanmy fourth conductor-teacher was Boris Kaikin, who conducted at the Bolshoi Theater. But that I must explain more precisely.
Fidelio: That was the reason why, for your debut with the Bolshoi in 1968, you insisted on having so many rehearsals?
They said, that the music of Tchaikovskywho was otherwise a person of strong personality is, to quite the contrary, as sentimental and trashy as anything they had hitherto heard or played. Line by line, I went through the different passages with the orchestra, arguing and singing. And then they not only accepted, but were finally even excited.
For example, in the famous baritone phrase in the final scene duet [See Musical Example Below], in the original, Tchaikovsky writes out the fermatas on the opposite ends of the singing lines; but, by the performance, however, it rings out already well before, just at the beginning on the F, the highest note of the baritone ...
Baritone phrase, Eugene Onegin: shifting the fermata
Fidelio: ... because the baritone wants to shine just like a tenor or soprano ...
Fidelio: What you describe is what Furtwängler referred to with the phrase, I conduct what lies behind the notes.
Fidelio: How and when did you hear Furtwängler for the first time?
Fidelio: What else have you heard of Furtwänglers, beside the symphonies of Tchaikovsky?
I have also learned much from the conductors with whom I concertized as a cello soloist. Even when one plays the same cello concerto often, it is still always different every time. One can therefore learn a great deal, especially as I have had the fortune to practically always play under the best conductors in the world. In addition, I have consulted many conductors, for instance Herbert von Karajan. With him, it also went into details, as to the opening phrase of the Fourth Symphony of Shostakovich, or a particular choral and orchestral part in the second act of Eugene Onegin, where Karajan was an important stimulus.
And I have not only learned from having seen and heard the most famous conductors, but, I have always taken the time to consult them, to discuss the smallest details with them, and to continuously improve myself.
Fidelio: You havejust in the recent twenty yearsconducted many great orchestras. It used to be, that each great orchestra was an individual body of sound. The Vienna was known for its strings, a tradition whichas the first violin of the Amadeus Quartet Norbert Brinin explained in a recent interviewgoes back ultimately to Josef Böhm, whose art of the string quartet met even with Beethovens approval. With the Prague, especially its horns shonesomething Mozart already really treasured. And the Berlin impresses above all through its discipline, its special ability to make the developmental process of a composition alivesomething which surely traces back, above all, to their intensive work with Furtwängler.
Today, there is no longer anything unique, the orchestras are more and more similar to one anotherin their sound, especially. What is your experience with this?
I had the fortune to work with Prokofiev, and especially Shostakovich, and learned a great deal in this regard. Also, indirectly, from Dvořák, because I studied his cello concerto with the Czech violinist and conductor Vacláv Talich, who had personally known Dvořák. Talich showed me how Dvořák had thought about the rendering of his cello concerto. Naturally, I questioned Talich intensely, because I wanted to render Dvořáks music exactly as he had thought and felt.
Normally, one can only convey the intentions of composers through images. I still remember a rehearsal with Sviatoslav Richter, as we were intensively studying Brahms E-minor Cello Sonata, and he suddenly asked me: In what kind of weather, do you think, did Brahms compose this sonata? And sure enough, it went better.
Fidelio: Mr. Rostropovich, the period from 1969 to 1974 was very difficult for you. You were inconvenient for the regime, not least of all because you had opened your dacha to the proscribed author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. You were harassed in this regard: The culture ministry would typically say that your planned foreign tours were cancelled on account of illness; in Moscow and Leningrad, concert halls were suddenly no longer available for you; you were no longer allowed to appear in the provinces, where your concerts were largely blacked out; and, in reviews of orchestral concerts and opera performances, your name and that of your wifethe Primadonna assoluta of the Bolshoi Theaterwere no longer mentioned. You were considered to be a non-person, and were finally forced to go into exile at the beginning of 1974. What was the greatest problem for you during these difficult years?
My friendship with Alexander Solzhenitsyn began in 1969, after my first concert in the state of Rjasan, where Solzhenitsyn at that time lived with his family, or was lodged, as the case may be. At that moment, he was the greatest of all Soviet authors. Pravda had showered him with hymns of praise, because, after all, Khrushchov had released him from prison, or rather, a workcamp. One should have no illusions: Khrushchov merely wanted to show how liberal he was in comparison to Stalin; therefore, he ordered that Solzhenitsyn be our greatest author. When Brezhnev came to power, this was changed just as abruptly. Brezhnev hated Khrushchov, and just as Khrushchov damned practically everything wholesale that Stalin had called good, so Brezhnev did with respect to Khrushchov. Thus has it gone for the rest, up to today. For Gorbachov, almost everything that Brezhnev had done was bad, and for Yeltsin, almost everything that Gorbachov had done is badthats how things are run by us in Russia. And so, Solzhenitsyn was again proscribed and banned under Brezhnev.
Solzhenitsyn came on the aforementioned evening to my concert, but, unfortunately, not later to the dressing room. So I found out his address, and the next morning drove to his home to visit him; we had an intense discussion which lasted approximately two hours. Solzhenitsyn was pleased, as he expressed it, by the colorfulness of my Russian speech, and he encouraged further cultivation of our acquaintance.
I saw in a glance that his financial situation was very tight, and that he actually could barely work in his circumstances; in addition, he was sick and needed medicines, which could only be purchased with difficulty in such a small city as Rjasan. So, I invited him to live in my dacha in the vicinity of Moscow, although this immediately got me into difficulties with the regime. Two ministers, under the Interior Minister, even asked me to throw Solzhenitsyn on the street, when I argued that, aside from my dacha, he really had no place to stay.
Solzhenitsyn, who lived in my dacha until his 1973 expatriation, knew precisely what to expect from the system, and that he would be constantly watched. When we drove to Moscow, we sometimes did it in his cara very old Moskwitschand sometimes in mine, until he once said to me: Slava, this doesnt work. This way, were making it too easy for the KGB. They need only ram us with a van, to finish us both off together. Suppose, then, we make it more difficult for them; each of us should drive his own car. I was also anxious, of course, when we went for a walk together. But, this opened my eyes to the political situation in my country. In my youth, I had, because of my talent, made my career very quickly, and therefore had not had political problems.
Naturally, I thought about my family in this situation, especially of my two daughters, whose future I did not want to obstruct. On the other hand, they and possible grandchildren ought not to later be able to reproach me, that I had been silent about the truth, and conformed out of cowardice and laziness. It was clear to me, that I must speak the truth on such an important question; no matter what happened, what I think must be said. When I now, in retrospect, consider my decision at that time, I come to the conclusion that I never did anything better in my life, than when I stood up for Solzhenitsyn in this situation. This was morally the best thing that I ever did.
But, of course, it wasnt easy. In October 1970, I drafted an Open Letter, in which I explained my attitude on this question, and then later I sent it to the four most important Soviet newspapers. After Galina read the letter, she said, to begin with, only one word: No! Then she reproached me, that I would, cavalierly, risk my career, the future of the family, above all, the children, that I would ruin my life with this letteralong the lines of the saying, Make of your life what you will, but dont risk the future for me and the children. So, then, I came up with a way outI proposed a staged separation. We would separate pro forma, such that nothing would change between us; we would otherwise continue to live as before. As a result, neither of us slept for two nights; we fought, discussed, cried, and so forth; but then, my wifes great strength of character manifested itself. Galina agreed with my decision. We went through the letter together, line by line; she worked it over editorially, and even improved it.
Fidelio: She strengthened your arguments?
At the Boshoi Theater, where, following the Vienna trip, I was no longer allowed to conduct, another conductor was hired, and it was commanded: Forget everything Rostropovich ever said. Even in Eugene Oneginand I have already explained how enthusiastically the orchestra had reacted to my proposals at my 1968 debut.
As the situation was now totally unbearable, there remained finally nothing else for me, but to turn to my friends in the West; and they helped me. Just as they helped in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and I was very, very fortunate to fly as quickly as possible to Berlin and play at the opening of the Wall.
Fidelio: At that moment, many people were very much moved that you left no stone unturned, immediately after the Wall began to fallit is said, you called a friend in Paris and asked him to fly you immediately to Berlin, and on November 11 you played a Bach suite at Checkpoint Charlie.
Fidelio: Yet one final question about music, Mr. Rostropovich. You have, when characterizing the role of an artistinstrumentalist or conductorfrequently used the metaphor, of approaching a resemblance to a mediating role, like a priest. Could you elucidate that further?
Often, it is not so easy, because naturally it can also thereby lead to conflicts. As a conductor, one has the choice between two possibilities: Either one is a dictator, who disciplines his musicians by means of terror, orand this is my way of approaching itone works together with them on the basis of friendship. I forgive the musicians their failures, and they forgive me mine; but we both work with our music for God.
This modesty, of course, also applies to me as a cellist. Take the following example: Why have I made a recording of the Bach Cello Suites for the first time so late in life, at 70 years of age? Because it was a question of balance; and that is a question of personality. Permit me this comparison: It is very similar to when a young man sees a beautiful young woman on the street. He falls in love with her immediately and wants to possess her. He simply feels the balance. Thank God, the animal instincts usually wear off with time, and reason comes more and more to the fore. The problem persists above all for us RussiansI speak here from my own experience. As a young man and cellist, I also had no balance, and I had to learn that my personality did not come first, but that of the composer. When I was young, it was many times more likely the opposite.
With the performance of Debussys Cello Sonata it often happened to me, that I played it with a Russian sound; that is of course completely wrong. With Bach it was still clearer. In order to render his music, I had to give up my Russian personality; because a composer as great as Bach actually needs hardly any rendering to come into being. It suffices to perform it as he wrote it. And that is true for all great composers.
I have immense respect for Bach; he is one of the best examples, that art comes from God. As with a priest, it is not necessary that the Word of God be interpreted; rather, that God speak directly to man through the priest. And thus I see it also with Bach and other great composers. In order to bring them directly in contact with people, I ought not to render my word, but I must render it as it is written. That is also the reason why I have studied the Partitas in such detail, and made such a great effort to achieve a precise rendering.
translated by Marianna Wertz
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