MOSCOW — Mstislav Rostropovich played the cello with grace and verve — and lived his life offstage the same way. His death at age 80 takes away one of modern Russia's most compelling figures, admired both for his musical mastery and his defiance of Soviet repression.
Rostropovich stirred souls with playing that was both intense and seemingly effortless. He fought for the rights of Soviet-era dissidents and later triumphantly played Bach suites below the crumbling Berlin Wall.
In his last public appearance, at his birthday celebration in the Kremlin on March 27, Rostropovich was frail but still able to show his capacity for joy and generosity.
"I feel myself the happiest man in the world," he said. "I will be even more happy if this evening will be pleasant for you."
Spokeswoman Natalia Dollezhal confirmed Rostropovich's death, but would not immediately give details. The composer, who returned to Russia last month after years of living in Paris, had suffered from intestinal cancer.
After a funeral in Christ the Savior Cathedral on Sunday, he is to be buried in Novodevichy Cemetery, where the graves of his teachers Dmitry Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev also lie. The arrangements echo the prestigious farewell this week that Russia accorded Boris Yeltsin, the first leader of post-Soviet Russia.
President Vladimir Putin called Rostropovich's death "a huge loss for Russian culture" and expressed condolences to his loved ones.
Rostropovich, who was known by his friends as "Slava," was considered by many to be the successor to Pablo Casals as the world's greatest cellist.
A bear of a man who hugged practically anyone in sight, he was an effusive rather than an intimidating maestro, a teacher who nurtured Jacqueline du Pre among many other great cellists.
"He was the most inspiring musician that I have ever known," said David Finckel, the Emerson String Quartet's cellist who studied with Rostropovich for nine years. "He had a way to channel his energy through other people, and it was magical."
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma released a statement expressing deep sadness at the loss of his fellow musician.
"Cellists, myself included, are enormously grateful to Slava for the way he transformed the cello repertoire, developing new techniques through compositions he commissioned," Ma said. "He made things that were once thought impossible on the cello possible."
Rostropovich's sympathies against the Communist Party leaders of his homeland started with the Stalin-era denunciations of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.
Under Leonid Brezhnev's regime, Rostropovich and his wife, the Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, sheltered the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in their country house in the early 1970s.
"The passing of Mstislav Rostropovich is a bitter blow to our culture," Solzhenitsyn said Friday, according to his wife, Natalya.
"He gave Russian culture worldwide fame. Farewell, beloved friend," Solzhenitsyn said.
After Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, Rostropovich wrote an open letter protesting the official Soviet vilification of the author.
"Explain to me please, why in our literature and art (that) so often, people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word?" Rostropovich asserted in the letter that went unpublished.
The fight by the cellist and his wife 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.
After arriving in the West, "he was like a little boy, laughing, shouting, pinching himself to make sure these really were the streets in Paris," the late violinist Yehudi Menuhin recalled in the 1996 book "Unfinished Journey: Twenty Years Later."
Still, exile took its toll on Rostropovich.
"When Leonid Brezhnev stripped us of our citizenship in 1978, we were obliterated," Rostropovich recalled in a 1997 interview in Strad magazine. "Russia was in my heart — in my mind. I suffered because I knew that until the day I died, I would never see Russia or my friends again."
Indeed, he was unable to attend Shostakovich's funeral in 1975.
But 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.
When hard-line Communists tried to overthrow then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Rostropovich rushed back to Moscow without a visa and spent days in the Russian parliament building to join those protesting the coup attempt.
In his early to mid-70s, he still had the energy of a middle-age man. He recorded the six Bach solo suites for the first time when he was 70. Five years later, he performed 16 concerts in 11 cities in 28 days, crossing the United States twice and logging nearly 10,000 miles.
Asked by The Associated Press during the 2002 tour about his sleep, he replied in his accented English: "Normally ... four hours for me (is) absolutely enough."
Finckel recalled that after the release of the Bach recordings, Rostropovich celebrated with a feast at a hotel until 2 a.m., then reserved a meeting room for 4 a.m. in order to practice his cello.
Ever the bon vivant with a big smile and twinkling blue eyes, he was known for his love of women and drink.
"He is a passionate man, and he has a real lust for life, and his marriage is stronger because of it," his daughter Olga said when asked by the Internet Cello Society in 2003 about his loves in life. "What they have together is very precious, and nothing can destroy it."
Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich was born March 27, 1927, in Baku in then Soviet Azerbaijan. His mother was a pianist. His grandfather and father, Leopold, were cellists. One memorable photo shows him as an infant cradled in his father's cello case. He started playing the piano at age 4 and took up the cello at about 7, later studying at the Moscow Conservatory.
"When I started learning the cello, I fell in love with the instrument because it seemed like a voice — my voice," Rostropovich told Strad magazine.
He made his public debut as a cellist in 1942 at age 15, and gained wide notice in the West nine years later when the Soviets sent him to perform at a festival in Florence, Italy.
Life magazine reported the 24-year-old "stirred the audience to warm applause." The New York Times critic said his music was "first class. His tone was big, clean and accurate. ... His musical style seemed to be ardent and intense."
He developed close musical relationships with contemporary composers, inspiring some 100 works, from Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten — as well as from some not-so-famous composers.
During the 2002 interview with AP, he spoke about Shostakovich, who endured part of Nazi Germany's siege of Leningrad during World War II and battled for individual expression in Josef Stalin's Soviet Union.
Suffering is essential for art, Rostropovich said. "You know creators, composers, need a palette for life, a color for life. If he (is) only happy with his life, I think that he (does not fully) understand what is happiness."
Rostropovich's work for humanity didn't stop with the fall of the Soviet Union. In 1991, he and his wife established the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation to help improve health care for children in former Soviet states.
Rostropovich received numerous awards, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987 and a knighthood conferred on him that year by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II on his 60th birthday.
On the cellist's 80th birthday, the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta published a letter Solzhenitsyn wrote in May 1973 after the author and his wife moved out of the Rostropoviches' house.
"Once more I repeat to you and Galiya my delight at your steadfastness, with which you endured all the oppression connected with me and did not allow me to feel," Solzhenitsyn wrote. "Once again I am grateful for the years of shelter with you, where I survived a time that was very stormy for me, but thanks to the exceptional circumstances I all the same wrote without interruption."
In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1955, survivors include their daughters, Olga and Elena.