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Editorial | Mstislav Rostropovich

He brought down the house

Mstislav Rostropovich, who died Friday, was more than a musician; he was a person who helped change the world. He used culture as a concrete, flesh-and-blood weapon against evil.

Born in what was then the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan in 1927, Rostropovich was, as a cellist and conductor, one of the giants of music. Seek out his 1959 recording of Dmitri Shostakovich's first Cello Concerto, made at Philadelphia's Broadwood Hotel with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

But it was his courage and activism that set him apart. Starting in 1964, he traveled abroad to perform and to speak out against tyranny. The Soviet Union reprimanded him in 1970, banished him in 1978. He took his show on the road, playing, teaching, speaking out for human rights.

Few who saw it will forget the day in 1989 when he went to the Berlin Wall, then in mid-topple, and played an impromptu concert shown round the world. (He didn't bring it down by himself, but he helped.) In the uncertain early days of Russian freedom in the 1990s, he championed the government of his friend Boris Yeltsin. Such loyalty from a man of his stature helped to bolster Yeltsin's regime through shaky times.

His weapon against oppression was culture itself: what people share in common, the medium of ideas, values and hopes that gives human life so much meaning. Great music, great art, he felt, brings us back, always, to the profoundest truths of what we are and what we yearn for.

He leaves us the recordings - and a Russia that, although still imperfect, is at least no longer one monolithic gulag. Wherever music could make a difference, Mstislav Rostropovich brought it there. The great fight is by no means over, but this fine musician and even finer man won his round.