This month we celebrate the great cellist Jaqueline du Pré (26 January 1945 – 19 October 1987). Beloved in her own time, she is remembered as one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, despite her tragically short performing career.
In a recent conversation, our cellist curators at The Cello Museum discussed our memories of du Pré and her effect on our lives. Representation matters, and it was important for us as women to see a female cellist as one of the top performers of our time.
Although the fact that she was a woman had a direct influence on us, her musicality and joyful stage presence stand out among cellists of any gender. We want to make sure that du Pré’s influence continues to be felt among younger cellists coming up now.
A Force of Nature
What made Jacqueline du Pré so special? Her husband, Daniel Barenboim, often described her as “a force of nature.” Music seemed to radiate from her, and her performances were both natural and joyous.
Her love of the music, the cello, and the act of performing itself shine through in surviving videos.
Here is a brief introduction to a film by Christopher Nupen that sheds some light on the phenomenon that was Jackie:
An Innate Musical Talent
Jackie’s mother Iris du Pré (née Greep), a concert pianist and composer, noticed that early on she displayed remarkable musical talent. She had the ability to sound out music on the piano after hearing her sister’s piano lessons. Upon hearing her sing “Away in a Manger” at age three, almost four, her mother said that:
“I was very conscious that there was a great deal more to it than just a little girl singing . . . [It was] a perfectly rounded little performance.” – Carol Easton, Jacqueline du Pré: A Biography, p. 26.
“I want to make that sound.”
About a year later when she was almost five years old, Jackie fell in love with the cello:
“I remember being in the kitchen at home, looking up at the old-fashioned wireless. I climbed onto the ironing board, switched it on, and heard an introduction to the instruments of the orchestra. It must have been a BBC Children’s Hour. It didn’t make much of an impression on me until they got to the cello, and then . . . I fell in love with it straightaway. Something within the instrument spoke to me and it’s been my friend ever since.” She told her mother, “I want to make that sound.” – Jacqueline du Pré, quoted in Easton, Jacqueline du Pré: A Biography, p. 26.
Her mother soon got her a full-sized cello. Jackie learned the rudiments from a music teacher, Mrs. Garfield Howe, who came to the house and taught not only her, but also her sister Hilary (the violin), and two other children, who joined them to form a string quartet.
Jackie’s mother also taught her, having Jackie try to create the sounds she heard in her inner ear. Her mother also wrote music with words and illustrations for both of her daughters – violin pieces for her sister, and cello pieces for Jackie. You can see some of the hand-written music and illustrations below.
Jackie advanced so quickly in her musical studies that soon her mother turned to Isména Holland for advice. (Holland was Jackie’s godmother and the wife of her mother’s piano teacher.) Holland suggested Jackie study with Herbert Walenn, the founder and director of the London Cello School.
Walenn said he’d watch out for her but assigned Alison Dalrymple to teach Jackie instead. They got along well, and Dalrymple gave her a good start with both left and right-hand technique.
By age ten, Jackie needed a new teacher, and her mother brought her to William Pleeth. Even though it was against his policy to teach children, he saw something in Jackie from that first day, and he accepted her as a student.
She studied with him for seven years and considered him to be her “cello daddy.” After teaching her for a year, Pleeth wrote that she was:
“the most outstanding cellistic and musical talent that I have met so far, to which she adds incredible maturity of mind. I am of the opinion that she will have a great career.” – William Pleeth, quoted in Elizabeth Wilson, Jacqueline du Pré, pp. 31-2.
In August of 1960, Jackie attended Pablo Casals’ masterclasses at the Zermatt Summer Academy in Switzerland. In addition to the classes, she had three lessons with Casals.
The focus of the classes that year was cello concertos, and Jackie played the Saint-Saëns Cello concerto No.1 in a minor, Op.33. As a young man, Casals had played this work for Saint-Saëns himself. Jackie later remembered that Casals described the concerto as
“a storm interrupted by passages of great calm and peace.” – Jacqueline du Pré remembering the words of Casals, quoted in Wilson, Jacqueline du Pré, p. 57.
Whereas one might say that Pleeth and Jackie were perfectly suited to one another as teacher and pupil – Paul Tortelier and Jackie were not.
Unfortunately, there were misunderstandings from the outset of her studies with him at the Conservatoire de Paris, and her learning style did not mesh with his way of teaching. Despite her time in Paris with Tortelier, she continued to refer to Pleeth as her primary cello teacher.
In spite of their differences, Tortelier spoke with warmth and generosity of Jackie’s studies with him and:
“never took credit for teaching her anything – this he allocated firmly to Pleeth.” – Wilson, Jacqueline du Pré, p. 108.
In 1965, Jackie was the first recipient of a British Council scholarship to study with Mstislav Rostropovich in the USSR. When he asked her what she wished to study with him, he was surprised that she said: “technique.”
While remaining loyal to Pleeth who gave her both her musical and cellistic foundations, she said of Rostropovich:
“My teacher is, in fact, doing me a great deal of good one way or another, and the basis of his musicianship feels very similar to mine which helps enormously to support me in the weakest of places.” – Jacqueline du Pré, quoted in Wilson, Jacqueline du Pré, p. 189.
After her studies with him, Rostropovich told her:
“There are many cellists who are better than me in the older generation, but only you, Jackusenka, can play better than me in the younger generation.” – Mstislav Rostropovich, quoted in Wilson, Jacqueline du Pré, p. 198.
The Golden Couple
Jackie and her husband, Daniel Barenboim, had an intense musical partnership during her performance career. When they met in 1966 and first played together, she said:
“I had my cello with me, so I took it out and started to play. He joined me and, without any doubt, that was it. It was . . . as if we had been playing together all our lives. And the shock to me was enormous, that I could have this degree of communication with another person.” – Jacqueline du Pré, quoted in Easton, Jacqueline du Pré: A Biography, p. 113.
Called the “golden couple,” they actually first got acquainted by comparing notes on their sufferings from glandular fever (mononucleosis), as described in the following video:
Playing with Passion
We are very fortunate to have video as well as audio recordings of Jackie. Here you can see, as well as hear for yourself, her passionate, joyous, and musical performances. Cellist Mischa Maisky said of her playing:
“With her, you had no feeling of the instrument – the music flowed from her directly and spontaneously . . . In her case she had overwhelming energy – it was almost scary – and this energy compensated for anything else she may have lacked. Jackie had that special technical prowess reminiscent of the spirit of virtuosity found in a Horowitz or a Heifetz.” – Mischa Maisky quoted in Wilson, Jacqueline du Pré, p. 186.
These first two videos are from 1962, with her mother at the piano.
Tragically Short Career
It is remarkable that any cellist could leave such an indelible mark on the history of the instrument after a career of just over a decade – but Jackie did just that. Her performance career began at the age of 17 with her Wigmore Hall debut in March of 1961, and ended with her last public performances in February of 1973 at the age of 28 – cut tragically short by multiple sclerosis.
“No wheelchair can interrupt the journeys of the mind.” – Jaqueline du Pré
Her love of performing endured, and she continued to perform as long as possible – but not as a cellist. In 1976, she played the toy drum in a performance of Leopold Mozart’s Toy Symphony. In 1979 she narrated Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. You can hear her impeccable timing and love of performing in this recording.
Although there are not many editions available to us today with Jackie’s fingerings, bowings, and other musical advice, we do have her version of the Bach cello suites. Cellist Moray Welsh assisted her in preparing this edition.
Before her death, Jackie started to prepare an edition of the Elgar cello concerto as discussed in a Christopher Nupen interview. As she did with the Bach, she worked on it with the help of Welsh. Unfortunately, her health had deteriorated to the point that they only made it through the first movement, and he said:
“It soon became evident that this was not going to make a viable edition and that it would be unpublishable.” – Moray Welsh, quoted in Wilson, Jacqueline du Pré, p. 426.
Although we don’t have her own version, we have an edition created by cellist and pedagogue Marion Feldman. Feldman carefully notated Jackie’s fingerings, bowings, and other details.
Feldman also edited and published several other pieces in the following collection.
There are three biographies of Jackie. The first was written by her friend Carol Easton, who knew her during the last five years of her life. Jackie asked Easton to write her biography. As the two knew each other well, Easton was able to get first-hand information from her. In addition, she interviewed over 100 people who knew Jackie. Sadly, Easton completed the book in 1989, after Jackie’s death.
Almost a decade later, cellist and author Elizabeth Wilson wrote another excellent biography of Jackie, published in 1998. Whereas Easton worked directly with Jackie, Wilson worked with her husband, Daniel Barenboim,
“who trusted me to undertake the task, and who gave me support and encouragement in every way.” – Wilson, Jacqueline du Pré, p. ix.
As a cellist, Wilson included more technical insights into Jackie’s training and career. As Wilson was working on this biography, Jackie’s siblings Hilary and Piers were working on their own memoir. Unfortunately, while they answered some queries, they denied Wilson access to the family archives. Even so, Wilson did an excellent job, and her biography of Jackie and Easton’s complement one another.
The third biography (mentioned above) is by Jackie’s siblings, Hilary and Piers du Pré, published in 1997. It is more of a family memoir than a biography, and it – and even more so the movie based on it – caused a stir when it came out.
William Pleeth refused to take part in the movie, whereas he helped with both Easton’s and Wilson’s books.
The scandal? An affair between Jackie and her brother-in-law, Christopher Finzi from 1971 to 1972. While the book pointed to Jackie’s illness and the mental toll it took on her as reasons for the indiscretion, the movie exploited the affair, making it even more distasteful than the book, mischaracterizing Jackie as a sexual predator.
While the memoir is not to our taste, in fairness, we must say that the family photographs included – which were kept from Wilson – are wonderful, particularly those from Jackie’s early life.
Certainly, there are some truths in the book. After all, the three grew up together; however, we have to question the authors’ motives in sharing family secrets with the world. It’s not difficult to suspect that Hilary’s jealousy played a role.
A Genius in the Family includes a discography by Andrew Keener, on pages 407-414, updated through 1997.
There is a more recent one on Wikipedia, but it does not include the more recent re-releases, like this collection we offered as a prize in our giveaway for our grand opening last autumn.
Filmmaker Christopher Nupen, who specializes in biographical documentaries of musicians, has preserved some priceless footage of Jackie. In addition to some short videos on YouTube, Nupen’s films about Jackie are available on DVD. Here are three:
Recent Tributes – A Ballet and an Opera
Last year Cathy Marston choreographed a one-act ballet, The Cellist, for the Royal Ballet based on Jackie’s life.
Do you have a connection or memory of Jacqueline du Pré? Please share in the comments.