The 1995 Polar Music Prize has been awarded to the Russian cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich for a unique artistic achievement distinguished by originality, independence, fluency and vigour of interpretation and instrumental mastery.

Chapter: Influences & Mentors

Influences & Mentors

Mstislav Rostropovich was born on March 27, 1927 in Baku, Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union. With a father who was a distinguished cellist and a mother who was a concert pianist, the young Rostropovich was introduced to music at an early age, taking up piano at four and cello a few years later. The family later moved to Moscow and Rostropovich entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1943 where he studied cello, piano, composition and conducting under Vissarion Shebalin and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Russian pianist and composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Photo by Pierre Choumoff, via Wikimedia Commons

During his studies he won a number of prizes and impressed Sergei Prokofiev so much that the composer rewrote his cello concerto into the Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra which he went on to dedicate to Rostropovich. Around this time Soviet politician Andrei Zhdanov began censoring Soviet artists and composers for not adhering to the strict cultural policy of Soviet Realism. Among those affected were Prokofiev who had his works banned and Shostakovich who lost his teaching job at the Conservatory.

Serguei Prokofiev with Mstislav Rostropovich

Rostropovich was adamant in defending his mentors’ artistry, and refused to join the Communist Party despite the very real threats posed by such a stance.

The music of Rostropovich's mentors
Moscow Conservatory of Music around 1940 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Chapter: Galina Vishnevskaya

Galina Vishnevskaya

In 1955, he married famed Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The couple not only worked side by side throughout their musical careers, but also shared many of the same political convictions; they were often critical of the Soviet regime’s stifling and censuring of cultural expressions and actively worked with human rights and charity projects.

Мстислав Ростропович и Галина Вишневская
Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya in 1964. Photo by Mikhail Ozerskiy, via Wikimedia Commons
Galina Vishnevskaya: Songs & Opera Arias
Galina Vishnevskaya in 2008 (Photo: Alexey Yushenkov, via Wikimedia Commons)
Chapter: Reaching out to the west

Reaching out to the west

After Stalin’s death, the Soviet state began to relax the rigid rules of cultural totalitarianism, allowing Rostropovich to tour and make new contacts in the West. Benjamin Britten was one such contact and in Britten, Rostropovich found one of his most influential friends.

Мстислав Ростропович и Бенджамин Бриттен после концерта
Rostropovich with Benjamin Britten after a concert at the Moscow Conservatory in 1964. RIA Novosti archive/ Mikhail Ozerskiy /via Wikimedia Commons

Britten, along with Berio, Bernstein, Khachaturian, Dutilleux, Lutosławski, Penderecki, Prokofiev, Schnittke, Shostakovich and Walton are some of the many contemporary composers who have dedicated works to Rostropovich – works which include some of the most important cello compositions of our age and, taken together, eloquently testify to this man’s artistic significance and standing, not only as an advocate of his instrument and its repertoire and a proponent of Russian music, but also as a living inspiration and prime mover, worldwide, for the writing of new cello compositions.

Performing at the White House in 1978. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
Rostropovich & friends
Chapter: Political Exile

Political Exile

In spite of the great personal risks involved, Rostropovich was uncompromising in his campaign for human dignity and artistic integrity during the darkest days of the Soviet epoch. In 1970, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya sheltered dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who, considered to be an enemy of the Soviet people by the state, was incessantly persecuted by the KGB. His friendship with Solzhenitsyn and his support for dissidents led to official condemnation in the early 1970s, resulting in fewer and fewer engagements and less publicity as well as being forbidden to tour internationally. Galina Vishnevskaya also received less publicity though she was still allowed to sing at the Bolshoi Theater.

Главный дирижер и художественный руководитель Национального симфонического оркестра США Мстислав Ростропович
Rostropovich during his time as the chief conductor and musical director of the U.S. National Symphony Orchestra in Washington. RIA Novosti archive, Vladimir Vyatkin

This politically motivated cultural boycott eventually led the couple to leave the Soviet Union in 1974 and settle in the United States. Consequently, Rostropovich was banned from several musical ensembles in his homeland and in 1978 the two were deprived of their Soviet citizenship due to “systematic acts which have damaged the reputation of the Soviet Union.” In November 1989, Rostropovitch travelled to Berlin and gave an impromptu performance at the Berlin Wall as it was being dismantled. He had his citizenship reinstated by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.

With russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Photo: RIA Novosti archive, Yuryi Abramochkin)
Chapter: Soldiers


Rostropovich was internationally recognized as a staunch advocate of human rights, receiving the 1974 Human Rights Award from the International League of Human Rights. Together with his wife, he also started the Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Foundation in 1991, a non-political, non-partisan organization that aims to improve the health and wellbeing of children in need. The foundation’s work is focused mainly in ex-Soviet territories such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Russia, but has also extended to help children in the West Bank and Gaza.

Rostropovich memorial im Schulgarten in Kronberg, by Dontworry via Wikipedia Commons

We're all soldiers for the music

(Photo: © Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Foundation)
Rostropovitch’s famous impromptu performance at the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
Chapter: Legacy

The Duport Stradivarius

Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Duport Stradivarius is a cello that was crafted in 1711 by Italian luthier Antonio Stradivari of Cremona. The instrument is named after the French cellist Jean-Louis Duport who owned it around the beginning of the 19th century. Legend has it that a small dent on the cello was from Napoleon Bonaparte nicking the instrument after Duport had permitted the emperor to try it. Rostropovich played the instrument from 1974 until his death.

Performing at the White House in 1978, Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons



Through his unusual artistic versatility – he is not only a cellist and conductor but also a skillful pianist and accompanist – through his friendship and close association with the very foremost Russian musicians and composers of our time such as Oistrach, Prokofiev, Richter, Shostakovich and Kogan, and through his teaching at the Moscow and St Petersburg Conservatories, Mstislav Rostropovitch, as a musician and cultural personality, has had an importance and influence, both in Russia and internationally, the full compass of which has yet to be perceived.

Chapter: Prize ceremony

Stockholm May 1995

Frans Helmerson performing in honor of Mstislav Rostropovich at the 1995 Polar Music Prize Ceremony.
The Laureates of 1995, Elton John and Mstislav Rostropovich (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
On stage with Elton John (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Receiving the prize from HM The King of Sweden (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Frans Helmerson reading the citation for Polar Music Prize Laureate Mstislav Rostropovich at the prize ceremony.