I’m sitting deep in the New Hampshire countryside listening to Jacqueline du Pré and her then husband Daniel Barenboim play the slow movement from the Brahms F major sonata. Gripped by that unique sound, vibrato, and slides, I am reminded why this great artist captivated me as a child, and continues to do so today. In the years since her tragic, untimely death from multiple sclerosis in 1987, the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré has achieved a quasi-mythical status not just in music circles, but in the greater public at large.
And it’s not a mystery why:
Jacqueline du Pré (Jackie as her friends called her) was a musician of such incredible white-hot talent, a performer of unique magnetism, a personality so singular and charismatic, and a persona of such irresistibility and fascination that her silencing at just age 28 had an outsize impact on the music world and arts world at large.
If anyone has ever made the cello look so purely fun as Jacqueline du Pré did when she played, I have not seen that person. She exudes the pure natural joy and passion, and in her most intense moments she can send herself– and her listeners– into moments of ecstasy.
What is it about her that makes us drawn in, that compels us to listen ever more closely?
First of all, her sound. Du Pré could make a sound that could rival in intensity Daniil Shafran or Mstislav Rostropovich. She had the ability to produce a searing tone as intense as has ever been heard on the cello, and she could also make the most intimate pianissimi appear as if she was whispering secrets right in the ear of the listener. Her vibrato had the most incredible range– she herself said she had thousands of subtly different vibrati— and she applied vibrato with such exquisite taste and control that one feels every note conveyed with thought and heart.
Another aspect of du Pré’s playing that one cannot escape is her conviction. There is nothing du Pré did that was half-baked, or for that matter even 99% baked. Whether or not one loves everything she did on the cello, her intensity and conviction are so powerful that one feels pulled into her musical forcefield. Whether it is watching a video of her playing Dvorak concerto live with orchestra or listening to how she tackles the seemingly simple cello part of an early Beethoven piano trio and somehow makes it far more interesting than the violin or piano parts, she presents music with a confidence and conviction that is undeniable.
Also undeniable, and a contributing factor to her fame and legend is that Jacqueline du Pré was a complex woman with a complex personal life. Christopher Nupen, the filmmaker who made the superb Jacqueline du Pré: A Gift Beyond Words Nupen and who met du Pré when she was 16, put it like this: ‘She was about as hard to understand as it is possible to be. There was no frame of reference because she was so many different people. I will never forget the impression she made on me when she strode into the flat I was sharing with guitarist John Williams. She walked in with huge, Amazonian strides carrying a cello aloft; yet I could see that she was actually very shy.’
Jacqueline du Pré combined heart, body, mind and soul in a unique way, and there has never been and never will be a cellist like her. From her balletic bow arm to what she herself called her “sumptuous glissandi,” her playing speaks directly to the hearts of listeners. Perhaps her artistry is best summed up by another cello legend – Pablo Casals.
“I still have at home a photograph of her with Pablo Casals when she was 15 years old,” said the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, who became Ms. du Pré’s husband and musical partner. “He signed his name underneath his picture,” Mr. Barenboim recalled. “And underneath Jacqueline, he wrote: ‘Genius.’”
Jacqueline du Pré quotes
On learning a new piece of music:
“I charge at it and send everything flying. I like to make a big impact and not tackle it at first bar by bar. Then I come down to the ground and look at it more carefully, or perhaps you could say that out of the chaos I put the bits together again.”
On her teachers William Pleeth, Paul Tortelier, and Mstislav Rostropovich:
“'Tortelier was a different sort of teacher from Pleeth. He is a very analytical man and in my first private lessons with him I learnt a lot about the fingers and joints. When I went to the Paris Conservatoire in a masterclass, it wasn't quite the same. There was an audience and I felt I did not gain as much. Rostro is like a volcano and it was exciting to work with him. But all my interpretations stem from Pleeth's grounding — the other two just added their wonderful personalities.”
On structure in music:
“Once you’ve got the structure, you have the freedom to explore your problems or your pleasures.”
On destiny and happiness:
“If you very much love doing something, you can’t transplant it somewhere else. And the fact that you’re capable and lucky enough to be able to enjoy something 100%-- you can’t put it somewhere else in the end…but it takes time…”
On making music:
“Playing lifts you out of yourself into a delirious place.”
Other musicians on du Pré:
Daniel Barenboim: “She was not just another wonderful cellist, she was not just a wonderful musician; she was really unique. Music was not a profession for her. Music was a way of living, a way of life. She had an abandon that was very contagious, and I loved it.”
Steven Isserlis “She was like a goddess for us. She was just this force on stage, and that of course always stays with you. What also made her stand out was her destiny — so tragic that it doubly fixed her in our hearts. She’s an icon twice over.”
Pinchas Zukerman: “Jackie didn’t fall into any category. It’s called genius. Pure unadulterated talent. Genius.”
Itzhak Perlman: Jackie’s musical gift, cellistic prowess and personality were so inseparable in her art that it made her probably one of the most unique musical personalities ever to perform on the stage. Her ability to communicate her art to her audience was uncanny. Besides her flawless and effortless technique, her command of an enormous array of colors was quite phenomenal. Personally, I was affected by the sheer freedom and abandon that her playing possessed. How lucky we are to have some of her recordings and a few films of her performances.”
Sir John Barbirolli: “She’s sometimes accused of excessive emotions, but I love it. Because when you’re young you should have an excess of everything. If you haven’t an excess, what are you going to pare off as the years go by?”
Yo-Yo Ma: “Jackie was always the most exciting cellist. It would be hard to think of another that took as many risks as she did. She was like a tight rope performer, and the risks she took were always for expressive reasons. There is no other artist who can transfer that sense of excitement onto vinyl. I first heard the Elgar Concerto with Barbirolli when I was in college and to this day I, like so many others, cannot listen to it without being tremendously moved. She was always an example of a musician who strove not for perfection, but for maximum expressivity, daring, and imagination.”
William Pleeth: “Whilst Jacqueline du Pré was admired and feted as a supreme musician and performer by thousands of music-lovers throughout the concert halls of Europe and America, it was a quite unique quality – her 'loveability' – which impressed itself so profoundly upon her fellow musicians and concert goers, and was even felt by those who were not fortunate enough to know her personally. The secret of that feeling which she invoked in the hearts of so many sprang, I think, from a very simple fact – namely that the 'child' Jackie never 'withered' as she grew up, as alas happens inevitably with so many artists in the transition from childhood to adult life.”