The Kennedy Center

Slava, Slava

About the Work

Rodion Shchedrin Composer: Rodion Shchedrin
© Thomas May

In Rostropovich: The Musical Life of the Great Cellist, Teacher, and Legend, Elizabeth Wilson - well known for her biography of Shostakovich - writes of the profound influence Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007) exercised on those whose lives he touched. Wilson, who herself had been one of his students at the Moscow Conservatory, points to the enduring quality of that influence, which "far transcended that of a mere teacher of music or cello" and provided "food for thought that lasted a lifetime."


Indeed, Rostropovich's larger-than-life personality continues to resonate in his remarkable legacy as a performing artist.  With regard to his own instrument, declares Wilson, "it is not an exaggeration to say that the history of the cello in the twentieth century would be unthinkable" without Rostropovich. His international stature as a conductor (including a tenure as the National Symphony Orchestra's fourth music director, from 1977 to 1994) promoted awareness of composers who remained little known in the West and expanded our understanding of familiar works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich. And the influence of "Slava" - the nickname for Mstislav, by which he was universally known - can also be felt in the diversity and quality of new compositions he encouraged and commissioned. 


Rostropovich channeled his musical genius into many different realms: playing the cello, conducting, and acting as a mentor and macher. But underlying and unifying all of these achievements was a passionate humanism, a commitment to the connection between musical and human values. The composers with whom he had personal ties - including Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Shchedrin - benefited from the artistic generosity and emotional commitment that, for Rostropovich, could never be separated from his formidable musical intelligence as an interpreter.


In the case of Rodion Shchedrin, who was born into a musical family in Moscow in 1932, only a few of his works (particularly his ballet on themes from Carmen) were known beyond the Iron Curtain before Rostropovich lent his advocacy to the composer. "I especially esteem his rejection of compromises, even during the times which were especially difficult for Russian music," declared Slava. An example of that bravery could be seen in Shchedrin's impromptu gift to Rostropovich of Stikhira, an uncommissioned orchestral work from 1988 observing the millennial anniversary of the introduction of Christianity to Russia. (This is one of two scores by Shchedrin to have received their world premieres by the National Symphony.) Shchedrin, who had taken over the leadership of the Composers' Union of the Russian Federation - a post formerly held by Shostakovich - was thus making a bold statement, as Rostropovich remained a persona non grata in the homeland from which he had been exiled since 1974. Within just a little over a year of Stikhira's premiere, Slava regained his Russian citizenship and made a triumphant return tour with the NSO.


Shchedrin's admiration for the cellist and conductor led to several substantial works for Slava, including a cello concerto and the opera Lolita (after the Nabokov novel). Nearly a decade after the gesture represented by Stikhira, he wrote the brief concert opener Slava, Slava to honor the 70th birthday in 1997 of Rostropovich. The nickname "Slava," fittingly, also happens to be the Russian word for "glory" and is associated with celebration in the Orthodox Church. (For Slava's inaugural concert with the NSO 20 years earlier, Leonard Bernstein composed Slava! A Political Overture for Orchestra.) Seiji Ozawa led the Orchestre National de France in the premiere of Shchedrin's score in Paris on March 27, 1997.


Subtitled "A Festive Ringing of Bells," Slava, Slava indeed calls for a full complement of bell sounds from the percussion section to lend the piece its signature sonority, including tubular bells, "Russian" bells, and bell plates. Against a unison blast of strings and horns, all of these ring out in full force during the majestic opening section. Soon the harp and piano contribute their own imitation bell sounds, while the strings proclaim a broad anthem. The tune gathers in power and excitement until all the string players are asked to sing out, at top volume, a threefold "Slava, Slava, Slava!" Their instruments then diminish on a sustained chord, allowing the bells and timpani to overwhelm with their joyful tintinnabulation.