Rostropovich plays for the ghost of Andre Tarkovsky from the series ‘100 Musicians’
Some years ago, there was a popular counter-culture slogan ‘Intellectuals are the shoeshine boys of the ruling elite.’ It’s almost a truism rather than a slogan. Certainly it was true right across the political spectrum, in Mao’s cultural revolution and in Hitler’s Third Reich.
Meanwhile in the Soviet Union.
In the Soviet Union, the composer Shostakovich suffered decades of absolute humiliation by the Soviet government. He was banned, mocked, forced into poverty, which led to him abandoning serious music and turning to writing film soundtracks, to put food on the table. He was derided and called a musical ‘formalist’ (i.e. intellectual). He was coerced into giving speeches on behalf of and praising the Soviet system and even had to join the communist party.
Andre Tarkovsky, one of the 20th Century’s greatest film directors, was also hounded and harangued by the authorities. International awards and prizes were being heaped on his work from all corners of the world but in his native Russia, his films were suppressed, not distributed or shown and sometimes banned. He was confronted with endless bureaucratic obstacles, red tape and artistic censorship, sometimes fighting for years to get a single film made. Eventually he was driven into exile, where he struggled to be re united with his wife and child, who were not allowed to join him and detained in the Motherland. In his lifetime he was only able to complete seven films.
Mstislav Rostropovich was probably the greatest cello player who has ever lived. He was also a strong opponent of the Soviet machine and became known as a champion of human rights, universalism and freedom. There was a pivotal moment for him and his public profile. On August 21st, 1968, he was scheduled to play at the London Proms accompanied by the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra. They were to play a cello concert by the Czech composer Dvorak. The fates aligned themselves in a way that this was the very same day that Soviet tanks rolled into the Czech capital Prague and crushed the green shoots of the social uprising there. In London, there were angry demonstrations against the Soviets, and the Soviet orchestra was seen as a suitable target to hijack, but Rostropovich led the orchestra in an inspired rendition of the concerto, and afterwards, to tumultuous applause, he held aloft the Czech composers written score, as a symbol of solidarity with the Prague spring.
As a musician he almost single handedly re-invented the cello as a solo instrument and was engaged in a lifelong process to vastly increase the cello repertoire. He was such a technical virtuoso that composers were delighted to write for the instrument which previously had been in a musical hinterland. To see him play was like watching Jimi Hendrix. He was able to play figures on the cello, a cumbersome and difficult instrument, that many leading violinists would barely manage on the more fluid violin.
He was of course also harassed and pressurised by the Soviets but remained decidedly unbowed. Exiled in 1974, banned at home, his Soviet citizenship was revoked. In 89, on that memorable night when the Berlin wall came down, Rostropovich was there at the scene to give an impomptu free concert for crowd. He was rehabilitated by Russia in the 90’s, (too little, too late, of course).
In Paris, in 1986, between Christmas and New Year, the tired, exhausted figure of Andre Tarkovsky died of cancer, only 54 years old. Mstislav Rostropovich played an unaccompanied cello piece at his funeral.