The Cello Was Proud

Israel is not Soviet Russia, thank God, and thus has no Solzhenitsyns, but it also does not have a great many Rostropoviches. People are not thrown into a dungeon for protesting here, but sometimes they are thrown into a pit.

Breaking the Muses' silence during the thunderous days of Winograd is truly a confounding and even naive thing to do. It is necessary, however, because of the death of Mstislav (Slava) Rostropovich, who was laid to rest last Sunday in the old cemetery of Moscow's Novodevichy Convent. He was no longer there to conduct a requiem in his honor or to play a Bach suite, as he did in Berlin the day the Wall fell.

At 80, he lived to a ripe old age, or more precisely to a rich old age; he was rich in spirit. His joy was our joy. His earned his riches not only by dint of being a superb cellist, but also by being a man of conscience. When asked at one point to explain the source of his soul and of his playing, the meaning of his genius, he did not exaggerate the importance of talent. His response to the question deserves to be remembered no less than his musical legacy, and perhaps even more.

"Conscience," he said. "Conscience is the greatest motivator of art." The cellist, conductor and composer did not just say this, precisely as he did not just play the cello. In the course of his life he demanded, first and foremost from himself, to act in accordance with conscience, and so he did, always acting in good conscience toward others.

It is precisely the conscience of a great artist, the recipient of many honors and prizes, that must be preserved as a great conscience. What did the coddled Slava lack under the oppressive Soviet regime? The Soviet Union adored him and his light shone forth and traveled long distances even in that darkness at noon. Even when it was locked down tight, and no one was allowed to leave, Stalin let him out to perform on the international stage.

But Rostropovich did not sell his soul to the devil who awarded prizes, and at ceremonies dignified by the presence of the president and the prime minister and the minister of education he did not pay lip service.

One day he decided to risk everything. In 1970, when a close friend was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he broke the code of silence and smashed the tablets of the unholy covenant; he knew that silence was tantamount to consent, to compliance. Stalin and his cohorts persecuted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn harshly. Risking his entire career, Rostropovich sat down and wrote his famous open letter to the Soviet media, which was published in the West but not in the East. He wrote: "I do not touch on either the political or economic issues of our country. There are people who are far more familiar with these than I. But explain to me, please, why does the decisive word on our literature and art so often belong to figures who have absolutely no competence in this?" And he gave Solzhenitsyn refuge in his dacha.

Many years later, Rostropovich summed up his life, saying "I never did anything better in my life." In Israel today there is no artist of Rostropovich's stature, with an international reputation like his. Perhaps only Daniel Barenboim, who is younger, belongs to that small, select group. But Barenboim's ties to Israel are loosening: courageous ties that are becoming undone because of courageous things. Israel is not Soviet Russia, thank God, and thus has no Solzhenitsyns, but it also does not have a great many Rostropoviches. Therefore, only very few artists break their silence, precisely when there is so very much to say and against which to protest.

What one sees from a pit - and when you are looking out from a pit your vision becomes sharper and closer to the environment - cannot really be seen from anywhere else. You see a strip of sky and it is all the sky and more, and you see a black cloud passing, and you see stars that take you up as high as possible, and a bird that takes you as far away as possible. It is worth experiencing a pit sometimes, as the biblical Joseph did.