Slava and Sacher

I’ve felt rather intimidated by the prospect of writing something meaningful about the passing of Rostropovich- so many have already said so much, and his career and life are already so celebrated that there is not a need for another summary of his accomplishments.

I’m also not entirely comfortable with trying to summarize the impact of his playing on my development as a cellist- I think it’s more or less a given that most cellists today are consciously aware of what we’ve learned from him. Almost any of us can pick his sound out from a couple of notes of any recording.

Instead, I’d like to talk about one project in Slava’s long and amazing career as a cellist that highlights both the kind of musician he was and the sort of legacy he leaves. We’ll save his storied conducting career for later discussion.
In 1976, Rostropovich hatched a plan to celebrate the birthday of his friend, the conductor Paul Sacher. He had the rather brilliant idea of commissioning a set of variations based on theme constructed from the letters of Sacher’s name SACHER, or, Es (Eb), A, C, H (B), E, and Re (D). *

Rostropovich’s dear friend Benjamin Britten was already on his deathbed and felt too frail to write a variation, and so offered to write the theme, Thema SACHER for cello solo. Rostropovich went on to commission variations from composers as diverse as Lutoslawski, Berio, Halffter, Dutilleux and Boulez, among others (complete list below). All wrote works were for solo cello, except for Boulez, who wrote his work (Messagesquisse) for solo cello and six cellos. Taken as a whole, the “Sacher” pieces represent the most important single contribution to the solo cello repertoire since the Bach Suites, and represent an astounding compendium of 20th Century styles.

This was a project built on friendship, on open-mindedness, on cooperation and on personality. Were it not for Rostropovich’s friendship with Sacher, were it not for all of these composers’ willingness to collaborate and give of their time and talent to this project, we would not have any of these pieces, several of which are genuine masterpieces.
It is worth remembering that Rostropovich commissioned and performed new works in every conceivable style, and approached them all with the same passionate commitment. On the other hand, nobody ever played the Dvorak Concerto as well as he did, nor the Schumann nor the Beethoven Sonatas- he was a friend to the warhorse and the avante-garde.
It is a personal frustration to often hear programs debated as a series of choices between old and new works, as if Beethoven and Berio were rivals. Rostropovich showed us that one could, and should, embrace the old and new with equal passion- musicians should serve music, not just old music or just new music. I believe all composers and performers ought to learn all they can from the masters of today and of yesterday. I can’t imagine how we could take seriously a composer who doesn’t understand and love the music of Haydn or Beethoven or Debussy or ________ (you pick), (though there are those who don’t, who we still take seriously- such is the privilege of genius). For those not so privileged, we all have something to learn from all great music, past and present.

Many of the works he sought out and championed have already become classics- the Shostakovich concerti, the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante, the Britten Suites. No other performer I can think of nurtured so many works from premieres to repertoire works. Others pieces written for him are working their way into the repertoire of the new generation of cellists, while others may, sadly fade into history. Rostropovich, who knew many composers and listened a practiced and prepared without prejudice said there were three musical giants in his life- Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten. Rostropovich will be remembered for his friendship with them, while other composers will be remembered only for their friendship with him.  So it goes, so it goes.

* These works, and Boulez’s “Messagesquisse” in particular, were the subject of my doctoral lecture recital. If I can find the text of that, I’ll post here. It’s one of those brain-smashingly dense dissections of row permutations that we all love to read- brew a nice strong pot of coffee before reading. I’ve played almost all of the pieces, but have yet to do the cycle in a single show. Aside from being really hard and a massive play, there is also the problem that the Dutilleux, which is wonderful, is for a re-tuned cello. I’ve never been able to get the cello to stabilize quickly enough after this piece to carry on with other repertoire, so I’ve held off until I have two instruments of comparable quality to throw at it. Maybe in my next life.


Compositions commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich for cello solo
for the 70th birthday of Paul Sacher
and performed by Rostropovich in Zurich, May 2, 1976

Composer                     Title                                     
Conrad Beck                  Three Epigrams for                                        
                             Violoncello Solo                                           
Luciano Berio                "Le mots sont alles..."                                   
                             for Violoncello Solo                                      
Benjamin Britten             Theme "SACHER" for Cello                                   
Henri Dutilleux              *Hommage a Paul Sacher                                    
                             pour violoncello solo**                                    
Wolfgang Fortner             Theme and Variations for                                  
                             Violoncello Solo                                          
Alberto Ginastera            *Hommage a Paul Sacher:                                    
                             Punena No. 2, op. 45 for                                  
                             Violoncello Solo                                          
Cristobal Halffter           Variations on the Theme                                    
                             "SACHER" for Violoncello                                  
Heinz Holliger               Chaconne for Violoncello                                  
Klaus Huber                  "Transpositio ad                                          
                             infinitum" for Virtuoso                                   
                             Solo Cello                                                
Witold Lutoslawski           Sacher Variations for                                     
                             Violoncello Solo           
Pierre Boulez                Messagesquisse for solo cello and   
                             Six cellos                             

* dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich
** Henri Dutilleux later added two more movements and the work is now called Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher pour Violoncello Solo
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Slava and Sacher”

  1. Pingback: El violonchelo que llena | Pablo, la música en Siana

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