April 29, 2007

Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich Buried


MOSCOW - Mstislav Rostropovich, the renowned cellist and conductor who won world fame for his masterly playing and his courage in defending human rights, was buried Sunday in the Moscow cemetery that holds the graves of many of Russia's most luminous artists and thinkers.

Several thousand Russians came to the funeral for Rostropovich, who fought for the rights of Soviet-era dissidents and later triumphantly played Bach suites below the crumbling Berlin Wall. He died Friday at age 80 of intestinal cancer.

Admirers flocked to the mourning service in the soaring gold-domed Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the banks of the Moscow river, which was blown up by Communists in 1931 and which Rostropovich helped rebuild after the Soviet collapse.

Red-robed Orthodox priests sang prayers and swung incense burners as mourners lit thin wax candles and lay flowers near the open casket, where the musician's body lay covered with a white cloth embroidered with a cross.

Rostropovich's passing comes on the heels of the death of another key figure in the country's history, the first leader of post-Soviet Russia Boris Yeltsin, whose mourning service was held in the same cathedral.

Archbishop Alexy, who led the prayers, read a letter from Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, which described Rostropovich as a "tireless activist, defender of human dignity, spiritual freedom and love for the Motherland."

Alexy, who missed the ceremony because he was undergoing medical treatment, recalled that Rostropovich initiated a charity concert to raise money to rebuild the landmark cathedral.

After the ceremony, Rostropovich's coffin was transported to the elite, leafy Novodevichy Cemetery, which contains the graves of his teachers, Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. Yeltsin was also interred there Wednesday.

Rostropovich's brown wooden coffin was gently lowered into the ground, after which his widow, the Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and daughters Olga and Yelena sprinkled the casket with fistfuls of earth in line with Orthodox tradition. Hundreds of mourners stood nearby, some holding red carnations, other wiping tears from their eyes.

"He was such a remarkable person for our country - for Russia in general and for the whole world," said Aina Zhuravlyova, a middle-aged musician. "He was the citizen of the world."

Guests and dignitaries at the funeral included Yeltsin's widow Naina; the wife of dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natalya; Spain's Queen Sofia; French first lady Bernadette Chirac; and Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliev and his wife.

President Vladimir Putin, who called the musician's death "a huge loss for Russian culture" paid his respects during a civil mourning on Saturday at the Moscow Conservatory, where Rostropovich studied and played.

"Slava" Rostropovich was considered by many to be the successor to Pablo Casals as the world's greatest cellist. He was an effusive rather than an intimidating maestro, a teacher who nurtured Jacqueline du Pre among many other great cellists.

Rostropovich's opposition to the Communist leaders of his homeland started when Shostakovich and Prokofiev were denounced during the Stalin era.

Under Leonid Brezhnev's regime, in the early 1970s, Rostropovich and his wife sheltered Solzhenitsyn in their dacha.

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.

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.

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, where he was music director from 1977 to 1994.