Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, on March 27, 1927, he studied in childhood with his mother, a pianist, and his father, himself a distinguished cellist who had once been a pupil of Pablo Casals. After a period at Moscow's Gnesin Institute (the Central Music School), he enrolled as a student at the Moscow Conservatory in 1943, where his cello teacher was Semyon Kozolupov and his composition teachers Vissarion Shebalin and Dmitri Shostakovich.
In the late 1940s he won important cello competitions in Moscow, Prague and Budapest, and in 1951, at the age of just 23, was awarded a Stalin Prize. Following Stalin's death and the subsequent cultural thaw between East and West, Rostropovich was able to travel abroad relatively easily, appearing at the Royal Festival Hall in London for the first time in March of 1956 and making his American debut at Carnegie Hall the following month.
An affable man of seemingly limitless energies — and not merely musical ones — Rostropovich proved adept at forging important professional alliances which were also true friendships. It was, for instance, as a friend that his ex-teacher Shostakovich introduced him to Benjamin Britten in 1960, on the occasion of the London premiere of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, one of many works by a wide range of composers written specifically for Rostropovich. Britten himself became a friend, and was inspired by Rostropovich to turn his attentions to the cello, producing his three unaccompanied suites, his cello sonata and his Cello Symphony specifically for the Russian.
Britten also invited Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya, the leading soprano at the Bolshoi Theater whom the cellist had married in 1955 and for whom he regularly played the piano in recital, to the Aldeburgh Festival; following Britten's death, Rostropovich served for a while as joint artistic director in Aldeburgh.
As his stature as a musician grew, Rostropovich found himself expressing liberal, pro-democratic values ever more boldly. His open friendship with and support for the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn — manifested in open letters to the Soviet authorities and a four-year period when Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya gave Solzhenitsyn sanctuary at their dacha — in the early 1970s and his alliance with the dissident movement in those years resulted in official disgrace. Doubtless he was relying on his high reputation in the musical world to protect him from arrest or worse. Visits abroad, however, became more difficult for him, and he was proscribed from playing with certain ensembles at home. Eventually, in 1974, at the beginning of a two-year stay abroad surprisingly permitted by the Soviet regime, he decided to settle permanently in the United States with his wife and children. His Soviet citizenship was revoked in 1978, for "acts harmful to the prestige of the USSR."
Meanwhile, after a variable beginning to his conducting career — some considered that he wore his heart too openly upon his sleeve, a criticism often applied to his cello playing as well — in 1977 Rostropovich was appointed Principal Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., a post he held until 1994. He was often heard conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he recorded a notable Tchaikovsky symphony cycle. Guest conducting appearances followed with most of the world's major orchestras, and he enjoyed a particularly warm relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra — with whom he spearheaded important festivals dedicated to Britten and to Shostakovich — and the Orchestre de Paris. He also appeared regularly in the opera pit, making his debut in Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi in 1968, and making the first-ever complete recording of Shostakovich's once-banned Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.
Always eager both to expand the repertoire available to his instrument and to help improve and promote the best new exponents of cello playing, in 1977 Rostropovich instigated the first Rostropovich Competition at La Rochelle in France — it moved to Paris in 1986 — insisting that competitors be given a new commission by an eminent composer to play, a principle adhered to in each subsequent competition. He also became deeply involved in another event in France at Evian, which became known simply as the Rostropovich Festival. During the course of his career he was involved in the premieres of many new works for cello with orchestra, many also recorded. Besides the Britten and Shostakovich works, and Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante and Concertino, there were important concertos by the likes of Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Panufnik and Schnittke. (In addition, his own compositions included piano concertos, solo piano works and a string quartet.) He also conducted the first performances of several operas, including, in the early 1990s, Schnittke's Life with an Idiot and Gesualdo.
Rostropovich returned to Russia only after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990, when he took the National Symphony Orchestra on tour. The previous year he had spontaneously played Bach at the demolition of the Berlin Wall, and in 1991 he stood by Boris Yeltsin's side, arriving in Russia without a visa, during the siege of the White House, the Russian government building, following Yeltsin's dismissal of the entire Duma.
He received numerous awards, both for his musical achievements and for his work in the field of human rights, particularly those of children. Since 1992 the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation has raised over $5 million's worth of medicine, food and equipment for children's hospitals in the former Soviet Union. Besides a plethora of honorary degrees, his awards included an Honorary Knighthood and the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal from the United Kingdom, a Commander of the L_gion d'Honneur and a highly prestigious membership of the Academy of Arts of the French Institute from France, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the United States.
The maestro's final public appearance was at a gala celebration of his 80th birthday at the Kremlin at which President Vladimir Putin presented him with the Order of Service to the Fatherland and praised him as both "a brilliant cellist and gifted conductor" and "a firm defender of human rights." For his part, Rostropovich said, "I feel myself [today] the happiest man in the world." He then added to the assembled well-wishers, "I will be even more happy if this evening will be pleasant for you."