Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist and conductor considered by many to be one of the finest virtuosi of his instrument in the last half of the 20th century, has died. He was 80.
Mr. Rostropovich, who became a global political figure in the 1960s after the Soviet Union stripped him of his citizenship for protesting Moscow's suppression of the arts, suffered from intestinal cancer. After initially being hospitalized in Paris, where he had a home, he returned to Russia in February. He died Friday in a Moscow hospital, his spokeswoman said.
Music lovers prized Mr. Rostropovich for his readily identifiable strength and beauty of tone. British cellist Steven Isserlis called him an "irresistibly powerful musician with an energy that can ignite an audience."
He also earned praise for greatly enlarging his instrument's repertoire. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has estimated that Rostropovich premiered and in many cases commissioned perhaps a third of the works making up the core of the cello repertoire. Nearly 200 pieces were created for him by composers such as Benjamin Britten, Henri Dutilleux, Alberto Ginastera, Witold Lutoslawski, Olivier Messiaen and Alfred Schnittke.
Mr. Rostropovich's connection with Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich -- who wrote two cello concertos for him -- was particularly close. "He was the most important man in my life, after my father," Mr. Rostropovich told the New York Times in 2006.
He also had close friendships with Soviet composer Serge Prokofiev and British composer Britten.
To millions of Russians and others around the world, he became an iconic freedom fighter. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1990, said Mr. Rostropovich "took a stand for the basic truths of life, and he did not compromise."
He already was an internationally renowned cellist in 1974, when he was still in his 40s. But that year, he and his even more famous wife, Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, left the Soviet Union after four years of restricted concert activity and harassment because they had sheltered dissident novelist and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The National Symphony in Washington, D.C., was among many orchestras that offered the couple support after their arrival in the West, and following an acclaimed debut conducting the orchestra, Mr. Rostropovich became music director of the National Symphony in 1977, a position he held for 17 years.
A year later, he and his wife lost their Soviet citizenship for being "ideological renegades."
Although he made the Washington Symphony his home orchestral base, he was a regular guest conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, London Symphony and London Philharmonic, among others, and continued to appear as a soloist in the U.S., Britain and Europe.
As much as Mr. Rostropovich embraced the U.S., when perestroika gave him an opening in 1990, he returned to the Soviet Union.
That year, his citizenship and all his medals and honorary titles also were restored. The Soviet Union broke up a year later.