Jacqueline du Pré: A Celebration

One can’t help but wonder what Jacqueline du Pré would have gone on to achieve if her life both on and off the concert platform hadn’t been cut short by multiple sclerosis.

Although she died in 1987, her image still resonates as one of the most recognised and beloved musicians that this country has ever produced, forever remembered for her piercingly passionate musicianship, lustrous cello tone and breathtaking ability to surprise and delight with her highly individual phrasing. Her story is a potent mix of talent, beauty and tragedy that has raised her memory to iconic status. 

We’re lucky that her performances are preserved in dozens of recordings, but also that her image is still as fresh as it was 35 years ago thanks to the film maker Christopher Nupen, who was a close personal friend up until her death. His films capture her vitality and exuberantly physical playing. 

Nupen remembers his first meeting with her: “I was sharing a flat with John Williams the guitarist – he’d accompanied Jackie on her first recording, and she came round to the flat. The impression I had of her when she walked in that day was of an Amazon who strode like a tiger and yet was manifestly shy. A strange contradiction, which is reflected in her music.” 

Du Pré’s playing didn’t go uncriticised. Some found her emotional directness hard to take – after all, the stiff-upper-lip sensibilities of post-war Britain had persisted into the 1960s. Watching her play in Nupen’s film, however, one is struck by her total lack of self-consciousness. She is, literally, transported by the music and none of the emotions flickering over her face, the way she tosses her hair or rocks her cello, seem remotely mannered. 

Sir John Barbirolli, himself a cellist, who conducts the London Symphony Orchestra on du Pré’s legendary recording of the Elgar, defends her in Nupen’s film. “If you haven’t got an excess of everything when you are young, what are you going to pare off as the years go by?” Strangely prescient words, considering how her ability to play would be stripped away by illness. 

Jacqueline du Pré, the woman with the French name and decidedly un-British temperament, was in fact born into a middle-class English family in Oxford on January 26, 1945. Hers was a musical household, and at the age of four the young Jackie was famously struck by the sound of a cello playing on the radio. She told her mother, “I want to make that sound.” 

Cello and piano lessons followed with her mother Iris, a concert pianist and, by all accounts, an inspirational teacher who turned her children’s music lessons into a journey of play and discovery. Nupen’s film shows musical scores from du Pré’s early years decorated with drawings of swans and princesses, bound to fire the imagination of a sensitive and musical child. She moved on to lessons with the celebrated cellist William Pleeth (whom she nicknamed her “Cello-Daddy”) at the age of 10. He immediately realised that with du Pré, “everything was possible” and described teaching her like “hitting a ball against a wall – the harder you hit it, the harder it would return.” 

At the age of 17 she astonished audiences and critics with her fiery performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a work that has remained synonymous with her name ever since. The future looked rosy: du Pré embarked on a glittering international career, performing and recording with fellow young musical stars such as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim, whom she married in 1967.

But just six years later in 1973 the increasing ill health she had begun to experience was diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. She was just 28 when her playing career came to an end, but she continued, while she was able, to teach and give masterclasses. She died in October 1987 at the age of 42. 

In the years since her death Jacqueline has not been forgotten. “Jackie is in a category of the very, very few musicians whose hold on the public’s imagination did not crash down at the moment of their deaths,” says Nupen. 

“Why is this? Well, for me, it’s because Jackie made a sound which was different from other people’s, that you feel goes deeper, somehow. Whatever music she played, and it didn’t matter how many times you’d heard other people play it, you thought, ‘Ah, yes. That’s exactly how it should sound’. Then she would surprise you with something unexpected. How can it be so right and at the same time so surprising? You can’t explain that, it’s one of those mysteries of music.”