Cellist, pianist, and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, called by the London Times the "world's greatest musician," was born in 1927 in the then-Soviet city of Baku, in Azerbaijan. He received piano lessons from his mother, an accomplished pianist, from the age of four, and cello lessons from his father, a former pupil of Pablo Casals, soon thereafter. He continued under his father's tutelage at the Central Music School in Moscow, making his debut on cello in 1942. At age sixteen, he entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied composition with Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. In 1945 he gained instant fame when we won the gold medal at the Soviet Union's first competition for young musicians.
In 1955 he married Galina Vishnevskaya, the leading soprano of the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow; their joint recitals, with Rostropovich as piano accompanist, attracted international attention. Touring widely outside the Soviet Union, the couple first visited the United States in 1956. Their encouragement of Soviet-American cultural exchanges helped bring about concert tours by Soviet artists such as violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Sviatoslav Richter.
Rostropovich's conducting career began in the Soviet Union in 1961; his American debut came in 1975. He was named music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., in 1977, a post he held until 1994. During his tenure there, he was well known for programming Russian music and especially, Russian or otherwise, contemporary music. Over the course of his career, he has commissioned countless new works and conducted the world premiers of close to sixty orchestral works. His performances, recordings, and musical collaborations have inspired the composition of over 170 works created especially for him.
His recordings include most of the standard cello repertoire, as well as numerous less familiar contemporary pieces. EMI Classics, the recording company with which he is closely associated, released his now historic recordings of the Bach cello suites in 1995. He has, in addition, been recorded as a pianist accompanying his wife, and as a conductor. A Grammy Award and the Grand Prix du Disque are among the prizes his recordings have won.
Rostropovich is the recipient of over 40 honorary degrees, and over 30 nations have bestowed upon him more than 130 major awards and decorations, among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987 and a Kennedy Center Honors award in 1992. A strong supporter of human rights and artistic freedom, Rostropovich gave shelter in his Russian home for a period of four years in the early 1970s to the Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Rostropovich and his wife's humanitarian interests and efforts are ongoing; they include a charitable foundation that, since the year 2000, has set up programs to inoculate two million Russian children against mumps, measles, rubella, and hepatitis B. For their humanitarian work, Galina and "Slava" Rostropovich have received various awards, including the 1974 Annual Award of the International League of Human Rights, aptly symbolic of the impact their lives have had well beyond the confines of the world of music.