One of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, but also an excellent pianist, a fantastic conductor and a fighter for human rights and freedom.
Rostropovich was born in Baku, USSR (now Azerbaijan), on March 27, 1927 to musical parents. His mother was a pianist and his father a cellist that had studied for Pablo Casals.
At a young age his musical talent was discovered and he moved to Moscow to study. At sixteen he was admitted to the Moscow Conservatory where he in addition to cello and piano also studied composition with people like Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich.
His breakthrough as a cellist came in 1945 when he won Gold medal in the first Soviet Union young musician competition. That was later followed up in 1950 when he won the International Competition for Cellists in Prague. Internationaly his big break came in 1956 when he made his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Although Rostropovich studied composition he has never been famous for any of his compositions. However, he has always attracted other composers to write cello music with him in mind, for example Benjamin Britten, Arthur Bliss, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Aram Khachaturian, Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Olivier Messiaen, Alfred Schnittke, Leonard Bernstein, Henri Dutilleux and Witold Lutoslawski.
In 1955 Rostropovich married Bolshoi soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. She was already famous in the Soviet union, but it was recitals with Rostropivich at the piano who made her famous internationally, and at the same time proved him to be an excellent pianist.
In 1969 he caused a great controversy as he and his wife openly supported novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had been banned by the government for writing about the Stalin era. To start off Rostropovich let Solzhenitsyn live in their dacha. He then added insult to injury by writing an open letter to Leonid Brezhnev via Pravda in which he protested against the restrictions in cultural freedom. Though his letter was not published, it got passed on to the west, something that got him into trouble at home. The Soviet government froze all recordings and tours, and made sure that the media didn't report on anything that had to do with Rostropovich or his wife.
This lasted until 1974 hen Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya were granted an exit visa and went to the USA. Rostropovich was very vocal against the soviet regime, and in 1978 they had enough and stripped him and his wife of their Soviet citizenships. Later on, as glasnost and perestroika came into fashion and the cold war died down, the attitude from all parties were changed and they regained their citizenships in 1990. In conjunction with this Rostropovich returned to St. Petersburg with successful concerts. In 1991 he returned again, but this time to Moscow and without a visa, to support the coup against the Soviet regime, and was hailed as a Russian hero.
In 1999 Rostropovich was the main act at the concert for the 10 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.
Rostropovich has organized several musical events, among them the First Rostropovich International Cello Competition in Paris in 1981 and the Rostropovich Festival in Snape, England in 1983. He has also been honoured by the French Legion (1982) and knighted by England's Queen Elizabeth II (1987).
Nowadays he works more as conductor. He is the Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington and is a regular guest conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic.
Personally I have had the pleasure of seeing Rostropovich live four times, and there are few performances I can so vividly recall. Especially his mandatory encores where he almost always plays something from the solo suites by Bach. Amazing stuff.