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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Inspiring Man and Musician

APRostropovich attending a reception with Putin on his 80th birthday in March.
A bear of a man who hugged practically anyone in sight, Mstislav Rostropovich was an effusive rather than an intimidating maestro, a teacher who nurtured Jacqueline du Pre, among many other great cellists.

"He was the most inspiring musician that I have ever known," said David Finckel, the Emerson String Quartet's cellist who studied with Rostropovich for nine years. "He had a way to channel his energy through other people, and it was magical."

Rostropovich's anti-Soviet leanings began with the Stalin-era denunciations of his teachers -- Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev.

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

After Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, Rostropovich wrote an open letter to the Soviet media protesting the official vilification of the author.

"Explain to me please, why in our literature and art [that] so often, people [who are] absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word?" Rostropovich asserted in the letter, which went unpublished.

"I know that after my letter there will be undoubtedly an 'opinion' about me, but I am not afraid of it. I openly say what I think. Talent, of which we are proud, must not be submitted to the assaults of the past."

The couple's fight for cultural freedom resulted in the cancellation of concerts, foreign tours and recording projects. Finally, in 1974, they fled to Paris with their two daughters. Four years later, their Soviet citizenship was revoked.

After arriving in the West, "he was like a little boy, laughing, shouting, pinching himself to make sure these really were the streets in Paris," the late violinist Yehudi Menuhin recalled in his 1996 book "Unfinished Journey: Twenty Years Later."

Still, exile took its toll on Rostropovich.

"When Leonid Brezhnev stripped us of our citizenship in 1978, we were obliterated," Rostropovich recalled in a 1997 interview in Strad magazine. "Russia was in my heart -- in my mind. I suffered because I knew that until the day I died, I would never see Russia or my friends again."

Indeed, he was unable to attend Shostakovich's funeral in 1975.

But in 1989, as the Berlin Wall was being torn down, Rostropovich showed up with his cello and played Bach cello suites amid the rubble. The next year, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and he made a triumphant return to Russia to perform with Washington's National Symphony Orchestra, for which he was music director from 1977 to 1994.

When hard-line Communists tried to overthrow then-President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Rostropovich rushed back to Moscow without a visa and spent days in the parliament building to join those protesting the coup attempt.

In his early to mid-70s, he still had the energy of a middle-aged man. He recorded the six Bach solo suites for the first time when he was 70. Five years later, he performed 16 concerts in 11 cities in 28 days, crossing the United States twice and logging about 16,000 kilometers.

Asked by The Associated Press during the 2002 tour about his sleep, he replied: "Normally ... four hours for me [is] absolutely enough."

Finckel recalled that after the release of the Bach recordings, Rostropovich celebrated with a feast at a hotel until 2 a.m., then reserved a meeting room for 4 a.m. in order to practice his cello.

Ever the bon vivant with a big smile and twinkling blue eyes, he was known for his love of women and drink.

"He is a passionate man, and he has a real lust for life, and his marriage is stronger because of it," his daughter Olga said when asked by the Internet Cello Society in 2003 about his love for the five Fs -- "fiddles, food, females, friends and fodka."

"What they have together is very precious, and nothing can destroy it," she said.

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich was born March 27, 1927, in Baku, in Soviet Azerbaijan. His mother was a pianist. His grandfather and father were cellists. One memorable photo shows him as an infant cradled in his father's cello case. He started playing the piano at age 4 and took up the cello at about 7, later studying at the Moscow Conservatory.

"When I started learning the cello, I fell in love with the instrument because it seemed like a voice -- my voice," Rostropovich told Strad magazine.

He made his public debut as a cellist in 1942 at age 15, and gained wide notice in the West nine years later, when the Soviets sent him to perform at a festival in Florence, Italy. Life magazine reported that the 24-year-old "stirred the audience to warm applause." The New York Times critic said his music was "first class. His tone was big, clean and accurate. ... His musical style seemed to be ardent and intense."

Rostropovich's work for humanity did not stop with the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1991, he and his wife established the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation to help to improve the health care of children in former Soviet lands.

Rostropovich received numerous awards, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987 and knighthood, conferred on him that year by Queen Elizabeth II on his 60th birthday.

On the cellist's 80th birthday, Rossiiskaya Gazeta published a letter Solzhenitsyn wrote in May 1973 after the author and his wife moved out of Rostropovich's house.

"Once more I repeat to you and Galya my delight at your steadfastness, with which you endured all the oppression connected with me and did not allow me to feel," Solzhenitsyn wrote. "Once again I am grateful for the years of shelter with you, where I survived a time that was very stormy for me, but thanks to the exceptional circumstances, I -- all the same -- wrote without interruption."