THE INDOMITABLE BOW
SEPTEMBER 5-8, 2018
“Music is a part of history, and our history has lessons that cannot be separated from our greatest music.”
- Mstislav Rostropovich
Beyond the legacy of Mstislav Rostropovich
In September of 2018, the Detroit Sessions presented a two-part event series in honor of the 90 year anniversary of the birth of legendary cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. At the heart of the story was a new portrait by esteemed director Bruno Monsaingeon, a documentary film entitled The Indomitable Bow, presented at the Detroit Film Theatre, together with a chamber music performance in Rivera Court of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“With the film, the constructive idea naturally touched upon Rostropovich as a political figure,” claims Monsaingeon. “However, toward the end, we are heading toward a real appreciation of his greatness as a musician - somebody who had gone into the heart of the matter.” Active not only as a performer and conductor, Rostropovich was also responsible for the sponsorship and dedication of countless contemporary compositions, thus greatly expanding the repertoire for cello. Nevertheless, his real popularity, the fame that expanded immeasurably beyond the realm of music, stemmed from his unyielding commitment to the freedom of expression of the Russian people.
The peripeteia unfolds in 1974 - after decades of awards and distinctions under the Soviet regime, Rostropovich’s political position of privilege and favorable terms were abruptly extinguished by his letter of public support for the dissident author and future nobel prize laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Rostropovich generously invited to take refuge in his own home. Immediately, the prompt disinformation campaign and widespread cancellation forced Rostropovich and his family into exile, ultimately resulting in the loss of Soviet citizenship for “acts systematically showing prejudice against the prestige of the Soviet Union.”
However, it is precisely these shocking circumstances that, against all odds, led to an extensive international career in the West and a tremendous platform dedicated to human rights all around the world. In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn -
“To Mstislav Rostropovich - your life in exile has made of you a living bridge between the art of Russia and that of the West. The face of Russia today bears the scars left by communist violence and the current horrendous convulsions, but its soul remains in its culture. That is the mission to which you are devoted, armed with your indomitable bow.”
How do some artists find courage to speak truth and confront injustice at any cost, while others remain silent? For Rostropovich, the decision to defend Solzhenitsyn came at a catastrophic risk, but perhaps, came as naturally to him as his affinity for excellence in music or the genuine friendship he shared with so many exceptional minds of the 20th century.
Among these, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, then president of the UNESCO Music Council, was among those who offered unconditional support to Rostropovich, facilitating a trio performance in Paris at the height of his Soviet cancellation, despite a refusal from Moscow. For the occasion, “he had his visa the next day,” said Menuhin, who confronted Brezhnev, then leader of the communist party, following the discovery that the regime had purposely withheld Rostropovich “due to illness”, despite him being in perfect health.
Perhaps these audacious acts may have been inconsequential in the grand scheme of the age, however, it is important to note that it was both Menuhin and Rostropovich’s commitment to music that equally fueled this desire for justice. As Yehudi Menuhin eloquently noted,
“in a world that is basically rather sad, bringing together musicians from different cultures, and, at the same time, making music together, with this great artist Rostropovich, it brings forth this music which depends on the friendship between us. You can’t play a Beethoven Trio unless there are very intimate ties between the three musicians.”
The historic Menuhin-Kempff-Rostropovich performance of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio became a point of inspiration for the conception of the concert program for the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the words of Monsaingeon, “to recreate a performance of this titanic trio, alongside the charm and humor of the violin and cello sonatas in A Major, is an homage not just to Rostropovich, but to the quintessential humanitarian ideals that are at the core of all of Beethoven’s output.”
Alongside an all-Beethoven program, the concert was underlined by another nod to history, a stage design featuring a visually projected backdrop of the Berlin Wall. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall began to be torn down, it was Rostropovich who rushed to the scene to take part in a colossal historic moment. Taking the first possible plane to Berlin, he arrived in front of the location with cello in hand - all that was missing was a chair.
Fortunately, being immediately recognized by strangers, Rostropovich swiftly resolved the problem and within minutes a small crowd assembled to listen to an improvised performance of Bach Cello Suites. Many years later, Rostropovich looked back in retrospect and remembered -
“I could not forget all those who had lost their lives on this wall in trying to cross over it. Hence, I played the Sarabande of Bach’s second suite in their memory, and I noticed a young man crying.”
In 2018, now with more than 10 years since Rostropovich’s passing, his story continues to resonate and present poignant questions regarding the fabric of culture and humanity.
“Sic transit gloria mundi,” declares Monsaingeon, adding a hue of melancholy to the reflection that inevitably, all will eventually be forgotten. Nevertheless, may Rostropovich’s courage, example, and belief that “one word of truth outweighs the world”, stemming from the most faithful devotion to music and art as such, continue to serve as a reminder that ultimate history will not just be defined by tragedy and bloodshed, but by the beauty of culture and the never-ending human struggle for freedom.
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