Ты будешь моим другом?: Thanksgiving for Unlikely Musical Friends

 

The world of classical music, no matter the age, is not one that we think of as full of friendship. And with good reason; the tales of divas, rivalry, and compositional disputes are far more rife than any about peaceful partners and easily co-written sonatas. But when, once in a blue moon, a deep and abiding musical friendship occurs, then it almost always produces beauty that we can be thankful for. 

On the face of it, Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten were unlikely candidates to be friends. There was a fourteen year age gap between the two men (Britten, born in 1913, was the elder), they came from entirely different, indeed opposing, societies, and knew nothing of each other up to the moment of meeting. In fact, right up until Dmitri Shostakovitch offered to set up a meeting, the Soviet cellist thought that Britten was centuries dead, a contemporary of Purcell. 

Benjamin Britten was born in 1913 in the Suffolk fishing port of Lowestoft, the son of a dentist. He attended a series of minor public schools before winning admission to the Royal College of Music in London in 1930. By 1932, he had already received widespread attention, and acclaim, for his compositions at the College. Through the 30s and 40s he was a prolific composer for cinema, radio, and theatre, as well as producing orchestral music and song cycles. It was also in 1937 that he would meet Peter Pears, a tenor who became his personal and professional partner for the next nearly forty years. In the 50s, he lavished greater attention on operas, and also began considering how to communicate his love and appreciation for classical music to the rising generation. It was through one of these ventures that he would meet Rostropovich. 

Mstislav Rostropovich was born in Soviet Azerbaijan to Polish-Russian parents, both with extraordinary musical pedigrees, and he first learned to play piano with his mother at the age of four, and cello with his father at ten. The family moved to Moscow from Baku during WWII, and he entered the Moscow Conservatory, with great success, in 1943. By the time he graduated in 1948, he had become close to the legendary Shostakovitch and won a gold medal in the USSR’s first union-wide competition for young musicians. Rostropovich, and his opera singer wife Galina Vishnevskaya, were often sent abroad to tour in the 50s and 60s, though the occasions became rarer as time went on because of  Rostropovich’s politics. (He was an ardent advocate of democracy and free expression, going so far as to shelter Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his home in 1970 when the author has nowhere else to go). 

The pair met for the first time in September of 1960, at a Royal Festival Hall concert. It was a combined performance of Britten’s 1945 composition The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, receiving its British debut with Rostropovich’s performance. Britten and Shostakovitch shared an audience box, and he later confided to his pupil: 

Slava, do you know I am aching from so many bruises along my side.” 

“What happened, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, did you fall down?” 

“No, but at the concert tonight, every time Britten admired something in your playing, he would poke me in the ribs, and say, ‘Isn’t that simply marvelous!’ As he liked so many things throughout the concerto, I am now suffering!” 

Slava was touched by the compliment, delivered in hasty Russian before the two were introduced. He was then determined, as he was on many earlier occasions with other composers, to get a piece for himself out of Britten. To his surprise, pleading with the initially reluctant Englishman, who had never before even written anything for the cello, worked. (The whole thing was nearly a disaster; Rostropovich, as I mentioned above, thought Britten was long dead, and that his mentor’s offer to introduce them was a joke. He only just stopped himself from laughing when he turned to shake the man’s hand, and Britten, shy and sensitive as he was, would likely have refused to do anything for the Soviet if he thought he was being mocked).

A year later, Cello Sonata, Op. 65 was born. It was to be the first of five major pieces that Britten created for his Soviet friend throughout his life. At the first London run through, both were extraordinarily nervous, and required “four or five large whiskies”, according to Rostropovich. “We played like pigs, but we were so happy.” But the festival performance at Aldeburgh was a rousing success. 

For the rest of Britten’s life, the two remained the best of friends. They shared an absurdist sense of humor, and a love of food, cars, and the world of music. Benjik worried constantly over Slava’s safety as Soviet repression efforts against him ratched up over the 1970s, and was incandescently happy when he chose to enter exile in the United States in 1974. To Rostropovich’s lasting sadness, his special friend died of congestive heart failure only two years later, in December of 1976. A few days before his death, during their last visit together, Britten gifted Rostropovich his uncompleted composition for Edith Sitwell’s poem Praise We Great Men.

While Slava did forge ahead in the wake of Britten’s death, and continued to have a successful international career, he never for a moment forgot his unlikely pal. He refused almost altogether to play Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, feeling that, after Britten had left, there was no one left who could make it feel to him the way it once did; two instruments, two souls, twined into one. On his deathbed in 2007, Slava assured his family that he felt no fear, totally sure that he was on a final journey to be reunited with Benjik, forever. 

In a time of such conflict and ugliness, it’s only right and good that we should pause to appreciate, and be thankful for, the beauty of friendship. And the everlasting beauty that this friendship created for us all to enjoy. 

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  1. Midwest Southerner Coolidge
    Midwest Southerner
    @MidwestSoutherner

    As a classically trained pianist, I don’t think I could love this post anymore if I tried. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Britten could be thorny when he wanted to be.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KirkianWanderer: In fact, right up until Dmitri Shostakovitch offered to set up a meeting, the Soviet cellist thought that Britten was centuries dead, a contemporary of Purcell.

    I love this fact alone.

    • #3
  4. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Midwest Southerner (View Comment):

    As a classically trained pianist, I don’t think I could love this post anymore if I tried. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’m a harpist (mostly Baroque/classical, but I enjoy doing some jazz when I have the chance), and I adore music history, so when I couldn’t think of anything else for a post I figured I would indulge my own obsessions. 

    • #4
  5. Midwest Southerner Coolidge
    Midwest Southerner
    @MidwestSoutherner

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Midwest Southerner (View Comment):

    As a classically trained pianist, I don’t think I could love this post anymore if I tried. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’m a harpist (mostly Baroque/classical, but I enjoy doing some jazz when I have the chance), and I adore music history, so when I couldn’t think of anything else for a post I figured I would indulge my own obsessions.

    I’m so glad you indulged your obsession! I’m definitely a classical gal, but have been exploring jazz. Admittedly, I’ve spent a lifetime of thinking in classical terms, so letting that go is a bit more challenging than I’d expected. Mr. Midwest is great with improvisation on guitar and keyboard, but I find myself wrapped up in the rules. Ha!

    • #5
  6. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Midwest Southerner (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Midwest Southerner (View Comment):

    As a classically trained pianist, I don’t think I could love this post anymore if I tried. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’m a harpist (mostly Baroque/classical, but I enjoy doing some jazz when I have the chance), and I adore music history, so when I couldn’t think of anything else for a post I figured I would indulge my own obsessions.

    I’m so glad you indulged your obsession! I’m definitely a classical gal, but have been exploring jazz. Admittedly, I’ve spent a lifetime of thinking in classical terms, so letting that go is a bit more challenging than I’d expected. Mr. Midwest is great with improvisation on guitar and keyboard, but I find myself wrapped up in the rules. Ha!

    As you’re a pianist, you might really enjoy Dave Brubeck or Thelonious Monk. Monk was my first jazz love, but “Impressions of Japan” is an astounding album. 

    • #6
  7. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    For anyone that’s curious, “Ты будешь моим другом?” means “Will you be my friend?” in Russian.

    • #7
  8. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Midwest Southerner (View Comment):

    As a classically trained pianist, I don’t think I could love this post anymore if I tried. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I’m a harpist (mostly Baroque/classical, but I enjoy doing some jazz when I have the chance), and I adore music history, so when I couldn’t think of anything else for a post I figured I would indulge my own obsessions.

    Those are some of the best posts.

    • #8
  9. Vectorman Inactive
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    For me, Ralph Vaughn Williams is the best “modern” English composer, but Britten has other great works, such as the Ceremony of Carols:

    Another great work is his War Requiem:

    The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a masterwork of orchestra arranging:

     

    • #9
  10. Midwest Southerner Coolidge
    Midwest Southerner
    @MidwestSoutherner

    As you’re a pianist, you might really enjoy Dave Brubeck or Thelonious Monk. Monk was my first jazz love, but “Impressions of Japan” is an astounding album.

    How did you know I love Thelonious Monk?! Wow, what a treat. Thank you!

    • #10
  11. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    For me, Ralph Vaughn Williams is the best “modern” English composer, but Britten has other great works, such as the Ceremony of Carols:

    Another great work is his War Requiem:

    The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a masterwork of orchestra arranging:

     

    Aaron Copland on Williams:

    I collect these.

    • #11
  12. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Percival (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    For me, Ralph Vaughn Williams is the best “modern” English composer, but Britten has other great works, such as the Ceremony of Carols:

    Another great work is his War Requiem:

    The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a masterwork of orchestra arranging:

     

    Aaron Copland on Williams:

    I collect these.

    “staring”

    • #12
  13. MWD B612 "Dawg" Member
    MWD B612 "Dawg"
    @danok1

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    I’m a harpist (mostly Baroque/classical, but I enjoy doing some jazz when I have the chance)

    I for one would love to hear what jazz harp sounds like. (I know this sounds like I’m teasing you, but I really would like to hear it.)

    • #13
  14. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    For me, Ralph Vaughn Williams is the best “modern” English composer, but Britten has other great works, such as the Ceremony of Carols:

    Another great work is his War Requiem:

    The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra is a masterwork of orchestra arranging:

     

    Aaron Copland on Williams:

    I collect these.

    “staring”

    I didn’t do the image.

    • #14
  15. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    MWD B612 "Dawg" (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    I’m a harpist (mostly Baroque/classical, but I enjoy doing some jazz when I have the chance)

    I for one would love to hear what jazz harp sounds like. (I know this sounds like I’m teasing you, but I really would like to hear it.)

    I don’t have any examples of myself doing it (not that I would tell you if I did, I’ve been playing since I was nine but I don’t think I’m very good at all), but this is a decent one of someone playing a rendition of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.” Harps have the same composition, essentially, as the inside of a piano, so most piano music can be easily modified for them.

    And Dorothy Ashby was a harpist who composed and performed almost solely jazz.

    • #15
  16. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    For anyone that’s curious, “Ты будешь моим другом?” means “Will you be my friend?” in Russian.

    I translated it right, but hesitated because I had no idea that’s the case to be used for “my friend.” But it kind of makes sense.

    • #16
  17. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    For anyone that’s curious, “Ты будешь моим другом?” means “Will you be my friend?” in Russian.

    I translated it right, but hesitated because I had no idea that’s the case to be used for “my friend.” But it kind of makes sense.

    Yeah, there’s probably a colloquial Russian way of saying it that I just don’t know, but I get what you mean with the case. In that circumstance, it could be nominal or instrumental. Even the моим is a little suspect, because they’re much less prone to use possessives than English speakers. The joys of on the go translation.

    • #17
  18. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Another mutual admiration, Debussy and Stravinsky–photo by Erik Satie.

    • #18
  19. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This is a much better musical tale than one involving disco and perhaps bears. This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the November 2020 Group Writing Theme: “Cornucopia of Thanks.” Ricochet will thank you for signing up, thus avoiding disco and bears.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #19
  20. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    For anyone that’s curious, “Ты будешь моим другом?” means “Will you be my friend?” in Russian.

    I translated it right, but hesitated because I had no idea that’s the case to be used for “my friend.” But it kind of makes sense.

    By the way, there’s quite a good Russian language documentary on him from a few years ago, with interviews from Mstislav and many of his friends and family. For once, the narrator говорит довольно медленно, so it’s actually enjoyable to watch/listen to, and you feel that you’re grasping something.

    (He reminds me, I don’t know why, maybe just his look, of Joseph Brodsky. And he seems to have been an inexhaustibly sweet man).

    • #20
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