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At the age of 4, he learned the piano with his mother who was a talented pianist, and started the cello at the age of 10 with his father, who had studied with Pablo Casals, and whose father was also a cellist. He entered the Moscow Conservatory in 1943, at the age of 16, where he studied the piano and the cello, but also conducting and composition. Among his teachers were Shostakovich and Prokofiev
Rostropovich gave his first cello concert in 1942. He won first prize at the international Music Awards of Prague and Budapest in 1947, 1949 and 1950. In 1950, at the age of 23 he was awarded what was then considered the highest distinction in the Soviet Union, the Stalin Prize. At that time, Rostropovich was already well known in his country and while actively pursuing his solo career, he taught at the Leningrad Conservatory (now Saint-Petersburg) and the Moscow Conservatory. In 1955, he married Galina Vishnevskaya, soprano at the Bolshoi Theatre.
His international career started in 1964 in the then West Germany. As of this date, he went on several tours in the western Europe and met several composers, including Benjamin Britten. In 1967, he conducted Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi, thus letting forth his passion for both the role of conductor and the opera.
Rostropovich fought for art without borders, freedom of speech and democratic values, resulting in a reprimand from the Soviet regime. His friendship with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his support for dissidents led to official disgrace in the early 1970s. He was banned from several musical ensembles and his Soviet citizenship was revoked in 1978 because of his public opposition to the USSR's restriction of cultural freedom. Rostropovich left the USSR in 1974 with his wife and children and settled in the United States.
His talent sparked compositions from numerous composers such as Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten, Dutilleux, Bernstein and Penderecki. He completed Prokofiev's Cello Concertino after the composer's death and gave the first performances of both Shostakovich's cello concertos. Rostropovich introduced Shostakovich's First Concerto to London and began an association with Benjamin Britten, who wrote the Cello Sonata, 3 Solo Suites and the Cello Symphony with him in mind. From 1977 until 1994, he was musical director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, Washington, DC. He is also the director and founder of many music festivals (Aldeburgh, Rostropovitch Festival), while still performing with some of the most famous musicians such as (Richter and Horowitz).
His impromptu performance during the Fall of the Berlin Wall (November 1989), as events unfolded, earned him international fame and was shown on television throughout the world.
His Russian citizenship was restored in 1990.
Rostropovich received many international awards, including the French Legion of Honor, and honorary doctorates from the most prestigious international universities. He is an activist, fighting for freedom of expression in art and politics. An ambassador for the UNESCO, he supports many educational and cultural projects. Rostropovich and his wife started a foundation which goal is to stimulate social projects and activities.
Rostropovich's instrument is the Duport Stradivarius.