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Rostropovich's Recollections

Simon Morrison

Music and Letters, Volume 91, Number 1, February 2010, pp. 83-90 (Article)

Published by Oxford University Press

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Music & Letters, Vol. 91 No. 1, The Author (2010). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1093/ml/gcp066, available online at

SEVERAL HISTORIES OF SOVIET MUSIC EXIST, but many are hobbled by an absence of
primary-source documentation about crucial events: the circumstances surrounding
the denunciation of Dmitry Shostakovich in 1936, for example, or the anti-formalist
resolution of 1948. The gaps tend to be filled by uncritical references to uncritical
sources. These include the uncorroborated testimony of eyewitnesses, partial (rather
than complete) publications of compositions, and unchallenged recollections. Every
survivor of the Stalinist periodthe worst of all times in terms of thought control
seems to have a sorrowful tale to tell of censorship and deprivation, sometimes supplemented with fanciful accounts of defiance. Though the system was monstrous, it did
offer perks, as evidenced by the career of the eminent cellist and (later) conductor
Mstislav Rostropovich (1927^2007). In his youth, Rostropovich received the privilege
of showcasing his talent at foreign competitions and the opportunity to serve as a cultural diplomat. An official document from the Russian State Archive of Social-Political
History (RGASPI) describes his education, political non-affiliation, and the places he
visited in 1949 and 1950: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Germany, and
Czechoslovakia again (see Pl. 1).1 Travel to Western nations followed, as did material
benefits and access to the greatest Soviet composers, who wrote daunting sonatas and
concertos for him. Thus a lad from Baku became the pride of the entire Soviet Union.
Rostropovich lived a long time (sixteen years of it in the West), and he recounted his
remarkable career to biographers, filmmakers, and journalists with great verve. His
conversations with the musicologist and cellist Elizabeth Wilson, one of his students at
the Moscow Conservatory from 1964 to 1971, inspired an engaging, poignant narrative
of a selfless servant to his art. Her book, Rostropovich:The Musical Life of the Great Cellist,
Teacher, and Legend, proposes that Rostropovich was considered no less talented as a
composer than a cellist, and that he could tackle the virtuoso piano repertoire with
ease.2 In the late 1950s, moreover, he reputedly used his artistry to conquer every continent of the globe (p. 102). The exultations might seem overstated, but it would be
petty to dwell on them: no one doubts that Rostropovich was a brilliant musician.

*Princeton University. Email:

RGASPI f. 83, op. 2, d. 395. My thanks to Leonid Maximenkov for obtaining this document.
Elizabeth Wilson, Rostropovich: The Musical Life of the Great Cellist, Teacher, and Legend (Chicago, 2008), 34 (subsequent page references provided in the main text). The British edition, issued in London by Faber and Faber (pp.
xviii 382; Faber and Faber, London, 2007, 25. ISBN 978-0-571-22051-9), has a more sedate title: Mstislav Rostropovich: Cellist,Teacher, Legend.


PL. 1.


Readers seeking details of Rostropovichs technical innovations and pedagogical methods will find the book a revelation, although the author deserved a better copy-editor.3
My concern here is much less the substance of Wilsons eyewitness account than the
question of the size of the role Rostropovich played in the composition of such late
Stalin-era works as Prokofievs Cello Sonata of 1949, his Second Cello Concerto and
Sinfonia Concertante of 1951 and 1952, his Seventh Symphony of 1952, and the unfinished Concertino for Cello and Orchestra as well as the Sonata for Unaccompanied
Cello. Rostropovich informed Wilson that Prokofiev humbly solicited his expertise. If
you would be willing to help me Id be most grateful, he recalled Prokofiev beseeching
him in 1948. To hear such words, Rostropovich continued, sent me into total delirium
(pp. 67^8). Exactly when the cellist and the composer first met remains unclear, but
it was long before they began working together. The Prokofiev holdings at the Russian
State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) include a telegram from Rostropovich
to Prokofiev dated 8 June 1947, in which the 20-year-old congratulates the 56-year-old
for receiving a First Class Stalin Prize for his First Violin Sonata and wishes him
health, long years of life and many cello works.4 The conversation that finds Prokofiev
soliciting the cellists aid reportedly took place after Rostropovichs recital performance
of Prokofievs First Cello Concerto in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. Rostropovich dates the performance 18 January 1948 (p. 67), but it actually occurred on
Sunday evening, 21 December 1947, as part of a programme including works by Bach,
Glazunov, Rachmaninoff, and Borodin (an arrangement of the Polovtsian Dances by
the pianist Irina Kozolupova, Rostropovichs cousin). Falling on Stalins birthday, the
concert was dedicated to the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Great October Socialist
Revolution, with Rostropovich identified as a prize-winner at the All-Union Competition for Performers in 1945 and the International Festival of Democratic Youth in
Prague in 1947.5
Rostropovich resolved to champion the concerto upon learning of its disastrous
premiere in 1938, when Lev Berezovsky performed it in Moscow during the second
dekada, a ten-day festival of Soviet music. Despite positive advance notice in the newspaper Sovetskoye iskusstvo (Soviet Art), the concerto came in for stinging critique in the
journal Sovetskaya muzka (Soviet Music) for its diffusenessspecifically in the third
movement, a protracted variations set. Prokofiev, according to an oft-repeated anecdote
from the pianist Svyatoslav Richter, summarized Berezovskys performance in five
words: Nothing could have been worse (p. 67). But perhaps there was, namely the
Boston premiere on 8 March 1940, featuring Gregor Pyatigorsky, the cellist for whom
the concerto had been conceived in 1933.6 Pyatigorsky corresponded with Prokofiev
while preparing for the American premiere; the composer, stung by the reception
The book is hampered by typographical and transliteration mistakes (Bolsh0aya0 for Bol0shaya orbetter
Bolshaya, Esubius for Eusebius, Gnessin for Gnesin, Nickolay for Nikolay, som-thing for something, Tanyeev for
Taneyev, and so forth), and imprecise chronological description: in the section of the book concerning the late 1960s,
for example, Wilson discusses the VOKS cultural exchange bureau, but VOKS was dismantled in 1958.
RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, yed. khr. 673.
RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, yed. khr. 906 [concert programme].
The manuscript of the concerto (RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, yed. khr. 171) bears the inaccurate annotation 1934^38.
Prokofiev began sketching the score in Paris in 1933 in consultation with Pyatigorsky, whom he had encountered
years before in Berlin, and who enthusiastically demonstrated the possibilities of the cello for him. Work sputtered,
resumed in 1934, and sputtered again, owing to the intervention of more pressing and inspiring commissions. Prokofiev did not finish the concerto until 18 September 1938, while living outside of Moscow in Nikolina Gora. Because
Pyatigorsky had defected from Russia during the Civil War, Prokofiev, a Soviet citizen, could not reserve the world
premiere for him.


accorded the Soviet unveiling, gave the cellist frustrated permission to alter the score:
Do whatever you find necessary.7 Pyatigorsky battled the piece to a draw, resulting
in a decidedly mixed reception by the Boston press. The perplexed music critic for the
Boston Herald, unable to place a finger on what seems to be the trouble with the finale,
flabbily declared it much too interesting a work to be shelved.8 A rival critic for the
Boston Globe found just the slow opening movement engaging:
But from that point only the cello part, which indeed has some passages that even the Pyatigorsky tone and skill are hard put to make sound well, is of any interest. The instruments of
the orchestra are reduced to mutterings so subdued that there is not the slightest contrast.
And in this fashion the concerto goes on and on.9

Pyatigorsky played the concerto again in New York on 14 and 16 March, with an orchestral miscue almost causing the cellist a stroke on the first night. In a letter from
New York dated 27 December 1945, the composer Vernon Duke (Vladimir Dukelsky)
reported to Prokofiev: The Cello Concerto heard a few years back had a superb first
movementone of your best inspirationsan interesting if less immediately appealing
second, and an over-long and over-developed Theme and Variations for the Finale.
That is also Pyatigorskys opinion.10 The changes made by Pyatigorsky in Boston and
New York eventually reached Prokofiev and factored into his own rewriting of the concerto. Sensing a chance to participate in the rehabilitation of the score, Rostropovich
encouraged the rewrite. In 1950, he sent Prokofiev a letter that concluded: To avoid
completely getting on your nerves, I wont ask anything about the cello concerto, but
in my heart Im hoping.11
The revision had two phases: the first undertaken in 1951, and the second in 1952. At
the besieged, exhausted end of his career, Prokofiev transformed his First Cello Concerto into his Second Cello Concerto and then, after absorbing a caustic review in
Sovetskaya muzka, further into the Sinfonia Concertante. The assumption that he and
Rostropovich worked side by side arose from a single report and a photograph in the
12 January 1952 issue of Sovetskoye iskusstvo. The News in the Arts (Novosti iskusstv) columnist writes: Sergey Prokofiev worked with great intensity on his Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra. In his composition the author made broad use of Russian folksong material. The concerto was created in close kinship with the violoncellist Mstislav
Rostropovich, to whom it is dedicated.12 Rostropovich was ambiguous in describing
his involvement in the project, noting that For the next two summers [1951 and 1952]
I lived at Prokofievs dacha and worked with him on the new edition of the concerto.
During the other months of the year, I also had frequent meetings with him in
Moscow (p. 71). We then learn from him (through Wilson) that, Contrary to what is
sometimes believed, eight bars of passagework for cello in the first movement were the
only bars that I composed in the whole work. Neither did I add anything or interfere
in the second definitive revision; the changes all belonged to Prokofiev (p. 77).

Gregor Piatigorsky, Cellist (New York, 1976 ), 237. My thanks to Terry King for this reference.
Alexander Williams, Symphony Concert, Boston Herald, 9 March 1940.
C. W. D., Symphony Hall, Boston Globe, 9 March 1940.
RGALI f. 1929, op. 2, yed. khr. 189.
RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, yed. khr. 673.
Prokofiev and Atovmyan: Correspondence, 1933^1952, comp. and introd. Nelly Kravetz, in Simon Morrison
(ed.), Sergey Prokofiev and his World (Princeton, 2008), 264.


Rostropovich did periodically reside at the dacha with Prokofiev, his second wife
Mira Mendelson, and, now and again, her father Abram. The available evidence suggests that Prokofiev revised the solo and orchestral parts of the concerto in relative solitude. Once the material was drafted, he gave the sketchbooks to Rostropovich for technical correction and refinement, who in turn forwarded them to another Prokofiev
assistant, Levon Atovmyan, for realization. Atovmyan was a skilled arranger and orchestrator as well as an instrumentalist. In fact, he played the cello.
The evidence includes two letters that Atovmyan wrote to Prokofiev in the summer of
1951. In the first, dated 5 August, he reports: Im sending you the realization of the
first movement of the concerto with some questions of mine. M. Rostropovich is bringing around the 2nd movement tomorrow; Ill give him the manuscript and copy of
the 1st movement. In the second letter, dated 25 August, Atovmyan adds:
the delay in realizing the Cello Concerto wasnt my fault. Having begun the realization of the
third sketchbook I ran across references to the first sketchbook, which Rostropovich sequestered. I finally received the first sketchbook yesterday and today I resumed work. . . . When
are you planning to give me the third movement of the Cello Concerto? I want to arrange
my work schedule accordingly.13

In a letter from Rostropovich to Prokofiev dated 30 July 1951, Rostropovich helpfully

confirms: Atovmyan is already working on the first movement of the Cello Concerto
(he should have started work today, since I took it out to him on Sunday).14
So the collaboration on the concerto involved a crucial third person: it was, in fact, a
collective creation from the start, with the commissioning, private and public assessments, and eventual publication overseenlike everything else in Soviet music at the
timeby fractious cultural agencies.
Likewise complicated is the following anecdote Rostropovich offered about the final
movement of the Second Cello Concerto. The anecdote exists in several versions.
Here is the version included with a box set of recordings from Rostropovichs Soviet
Prokofiev incorporated a theme that was similar to a popular song by Vladimir Zakharov, an
apparatchik who mercilessly vilified all formalists. After the work was played at the Composers Union, Zakharov stood up and said indignantly that he would write to the papers complaining that his own wonderful tune had been totally distorted. When I related this to Prokofiev he wrote a replacement tune (a waltz, which I never played), and said that once everything had settled down we could quietly revert to the original tune.15

And here is the version supplied by Wilson:

[T]he concerto found an unexpected antagonist among its listeners when it was auditioned.
On hearing the theme in the Allegretto interlude of the finale (figure 15), the director of the
Piatnitsky Choir, Zakharov, jumped up and accused Prokofiev of plagiarism. The simple
tune, a song with a Belorussian title, Byvaitse zdorovy (known in Russian as Bud 0te zdorovy and
in translation meaning Be healthy!), had actually been composed by I. Lyuban, but Zakharov


Ibid. 265.
RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, yed. khr. 673. The letter was sent to Prokofiev at his dacha; obviously, Rostropovich was not
living there at the time.
Mstislav Rostropovich, CD liner notes to Rostropovich:The Russian Years 1950^1974, EMI 72016, p. 28.


had arranged it for the Piatnitsky choir. Some confusion exists as to its true authorship, since
the melody had become so popular that it was considered a folk song. Zakharov appeared to
claim it as his own, and now charged Prokofiev with stealing it, demanding royalties and an
apology. When Slava went to Prokofievs home to tell him of the successful outcome of the audition, he also told him of the scandal that had erupted. Prokofiev laughed and said, Well,
next time I use it, Ill disguise the tune so well that Zakharov wont even recognize it. He
was as good as his word. (p. 74)

Both versions are intriguing, but they may not be entirely accurate. Zakharov did arrange a song for his choir that shares points with Prokofievs, but a much better rhythmic and melodic match comes, as Wilson signals, from the Minsk composer Isaak
Lyuban. Zakharovs duple-metre tune dates from 1937; Lyubans triple-metre tune,
entitled Our Toast (Nash tost), was written in 1942. Both songs became popular
during the war, and both tended to be performed in concert in different variations, a
practice good-humouredly reprised by Prokofiev in his score. Given that these songs
were sung as toasts to Stalin, Prokofiev would have been foolhardy to mock them in
his concerto. It seems more likely that the paraphrase was intended as a sincere (not
cynical) response to his official censure in 1948, when he was instructed to increase
the popular content of his scores. The Sovetskoye iskusstvo columnist who mentions the
Russian folksong material in the concerto was either engaging in specious politesse or
referring to Our Toast.
Finally, there is the account of the creation of Prokofievs Seventh Symphony in
1952, which Rostropovich characterizes as a lighthearted composition intended for
childrennot, as its critics allege, a lacklustre product of political pressure. Rostropovich recalled teaming up with the pianist Anatoly Vedernikov to perform a reduction
of the score for the Soviet Radio Committee bureaucrats who had commissioned it.
They loved it and, according to the cellist, via Wilson,
A delighted Rostropovich hurried away to buy a cake and a bottle of champagne to celebrate
with Prokofiev. The composer had not attended the audition because of ill health, but as
soon as he heard of the successful outcome, he rubbed out the title Childrens Symphony
from the score. Rostropovich asked him what he was doing, to which Prokofiev replied:
Since the adults seem to like it so much, lets just call the work the seventh symphony. (p. 70)

I have looked at the manuscript of the Seventh Symphony in questionlooked hard at

it, in factand seen no evidence that Prokofiev changed its title.16 Prokofiev, for his
part, confirmed in his 1952^3 diary that he sought counsel from colleagues while composing the symphony, but makes no mention of the post-performance celebration.
(His health and habits were such that he never drank, save for honouring the occasional toast on New Years Eve.) On 20 September 1952, Prokofiev notes that
Richter [not Rostropovich] and Vedernikov played Vedernikovs four-hand reduction of
the Seventh Symphony very charmingly. I showed them some passages from my sonata for
The manuscript (RGALI f. 1929, op. 1, yed. khr. 125) is a piano score in pencil with orchestration indications in
ink and pencil. Prokofiev writes Simfoniya N7 and his name on the title page, under which appears 1952 op. 131.
To the left of the first system on page 1 he adds Nachata 5 Dek 1951, Moskva. Instrum. nachata 25 Mart v Mskve
(Begun 5 December 1951, Moscow. Orchestration begun 25 March in Moscow). From pp. 15 (verso) to 18 (recto), the
piano score is in Vedernikovs hand, though Prokofievs hand returns in places. Several passages are crossed out, suggesting that the manuscript is the second revision after the initial sketches, which are catalogued separately (RGALI
f. 1929, op. 1, yed. khr. 126 ).


solo cello. Richter approved (its very serious). Then we all had lunch, swapped amusing stories, especially Rostropovich. A happy, rather satisfying day.17

Prokofiev mentions Rostropovich in connection with the orchestration of the symphony

and confesses to regretting, on one occasion (23 January 1953), having taken his advice:
Because the cellists complained that the coda of the second movement is difficult for them to
play, I consulted with Rostropovich about simplifying their parts before sending the Symphony to the publisher. Now that it has been published, the cellists cant seem to play it at all.
Either [the conductor Samuil] Samosud has sped it up, or Rostropovich gave me bad advice.18

The discrepancies will eventually be corrected and Rostropovichs musical reputation

will remain intact. But the case raises the following questions: to what extent did the
Soviet regime, desperate for cultural celebrities, exploit Rostropovichs talent, and to
what extent did he have to accept that exploitation? Who sanctioned the contact between Rostropovich, a musician with exceptional travel privileges, and Prokofiev, who
was declared nevyezdnoy (not allowed to travel) by the NKID19 in 1938? And just how
many cellists were involved in the writing of Prokofievs cello works? One, two, or
three? The answers to these questions are probably buried in the Russian federal
archives and private holdings.
Wilson offers a truly moving account of Rostropovichs final years in Moscow. For his
stance against the State-sponsored defamation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and for the
material support (including housing) that he offered to the heroic writer, Rostropovich
gradually lost his privileges and, in the spring of 1974, was obliged to emigrate from
the Soviet Union. (His request to travel with his wife Galina Vishnevskaya to the
West for two years was briskly granted by the Brezhnev regime; the couple was subsequently stripped of Soviet citizenship. Rostropovich did not return to Russia until
1990.) Wilson knew Rostropovich personally during this period of grave stress, and
her description of his troubles is sensitively nuanced. So too is her engaging epilogue,
regarding Rostropovichs musical, cultural, and philanthropic activities in the United
Kingdom and the United States.20 Appendix 2 of Rostropovich: The Musical Life of the
Great Cellist, Teacher, and Legend includes a helpful translation of a 1970 open letter from
Rostropovich to the daily newspapers of the Communist Party (Pravda) and the
Soviet Government (Izvestiya), and to two weekly publications (Literaturnaya gazeta and
Sovetskaya kul0tura). The talents that are the pride of our nation must not be subjected
to attack in advance, Rostropovich wrote. I am familiar with many of Solzhenitsyns
works. I like them, and I feel that he has earned the right through suffering to set
down the truth on paper as he sees it (pp. 356^7). The truth as anyone sees it is, by definition, subjective. It can be ethically and morally unassailable, as in the case of Solzhenitsyns recollections of the Soviet penal system, or egregiously distorted, as illustrated
by any number of fake memoirs. The perennial favourite is, of course, Testimony: The


RGALI f. 1929, op. 2, yed. khr. 98.

Narodn y Komissariat Inostrann kh Del, the Peoples Commissariat for External Affairs.
I was struck by the following statement: When he learned of the events in Moscow in August 1991 which threatened to topple Russias elected government and implied a return to Communist dictatorship, he immediately flew
out to Moscow without a visa and without warning anybody, his family included (p. 345). To board a plane to
Russia without proper papers certainly must have involved some cajoling!


Memoirs of Dmitry Shostakovich as Related to and Edited by Solomon Volkov, which Wilsons
wonderful 1995 book Shostakovich: A Life Remembered greatly helped to debunk. One
cannot, of course, make too much of Rostropovichs memory slips or occasional
recourses to embellishment. They do, however, remind us of the importance of subjecting all sources, whether primary or secondary, to critical scrutiny.