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Jacqueline du Pre: the woman who made Elgar's cello concerto a household name

Jacqueline du Pré was a brilliant but complex genius whose shyness and vulnerability, particularly in the light of her illness, often left her misunderstood, says Helen Wallace

Jacqueline du Pré - A celebration
Published: December 26, 2021 at 7:45 am
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Watching once again Christopher Nupen’s film Jacqueline du Pré in Portrait, I’m reminded why I wanted to learn the cello as a child. No one before or since has ever made it look such fun. For du Pré it was an absolutely natural extension of herself.

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Just seeing her face illuminated by pure inspiration, her long balletic bowing arm, the precision engineering of that wrist, her tremendous long fingers snapping down on the finger board, or executing those heart-stopping slides between notes – what she called her ‘sumptuous glissandi’ – makes you itch to play: her enjoyment remains infectious; everything seems possible.

And For Her it was. She almost makes us forget that, for even the greatest instrumentalists, performing is a continual battle with the body to recreate what the imagination demands. ‘For us mortals, it’s more difficult,’ as her husband Daniel Barenboim comments on the same film.

The veteran maestro has since acknowledged he learnt more about music from du Pré than from anyone else. Witnessing her performing can still have a powerful impact on the uninitiated, as Nupen himself knows: ‘I was told of a four-year-old child in Canada recently who had cried for days after watching Jackie’s Elgar Concerto. How do you explain that?’ The fact she can still inspire a new generation is reason enough to keep returning to her legacy. But the films are important for another reason too: they capture the truth of her complex personality.

A personal biography and controversy

Jacqueline Du Pre
British cellist Jacqueline du Pre in 1967. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Just over 20 years ago, controversy raged when a book published by her brother Piers and sister Hilary, with Jan Young husband, A Genius in the Family: An Intimate Memoir was turned into a feature film, Hilary and Jackie – note who came first.

It not only told the tragic tale of a virtuoso cut down in her prime by multiple sclerosis, but managed to produce an image of du Pré as an egotistic prima donna, who had never enjoyed life as a concert artist, and left family and friends trailing in her wake. Nupen is not alone in believing that damage was done to her reputation. Lord Menuhin and a host of former colleagues wrote a letter pleading that the film be stopped, but realised too late that their intervention had only given it more publicity.

For du Pré’s friend and biographer, Elizabeth Wilson, it was a painful episode. She had been asked by Barenboim shortly after du Pre’s death in 1987 to write an official biography. When she was ready to start work she visited Hilary and Piers in order to see if they wanted to collaborate.

They felt that she wouldn’t be giving them enough ‘space’ and in any case were considering writing their own. Despite discussions, access to the family archive was denied Wilson. ‘It didn’t stop me; I just had to work much harder and do more research; but it would have added an extra dimension to my book if they’d agreed to cooperate. I had the feeling that they had embarked on a commercial enterprise with a personal agenda,’ she recalls, ‘The fact that there was no consultation with Barenboim about content made me quite suspicious.’

Wilson acknowledges that the siblings had every right to recount the difficulties they experienced growing up with a prodigiously talented sister. What dismayed many was the sense that commercial pressures had made them divulge things Jackie would never have wanted made public. ‘As a biographer one must try to be objective and describe various points of view. But the du Prés wrote their book knowing that Jackie could no longer defend herself.’

Who was the real Jacqueline du Pre?

Nupen, who met du Pré when she was 16, feels that myths were bound to develop around her because of the huge contradictions that coexisted in her personality. ‘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.’

She did not attend a specialist music school, and felt lonely and sometimes alienated at Croydon High School and Queen’s College, which she left aged 15. Any lack of formal education was compensated for by her larger than life personality and infallible intuition, and probably helped her develop her own creativity.

‘The ability to dismiss rules was most important in her music-making’ remarks Wilson, though she also has no doubt that, in the years of her illness, she suffered from having missed out on a broader education. But people underestimated her intelligence at their peril, according to Nupen: ‘Some tended to think her rather fey, and naive.

It’s true, she often didn’t know the day of the week or what things cost, but when it came to the really important matters the depth of her perception was shattering.’ It was she who recognised the importance of the films he started making, and the fact that they could reveal more about their music-making than a concert or recording could.

A description by pianist Fou Ts’ong echoes this: ‘It was such strange combination – such seeming innocence with real earthiness. Daniel used to laugh at her apparent ignorance and disinterest in practical things. “Where is Oslo?” he might ask her, “Is it in Germany?” she would reply… At the same time there was such richness inside her; the fire and the temperament were unbelievable.’

Her understanding of music was so instinctive that it was unnatural for her to approach it with an academic logic or consistency, as cellist Moray Welsh discovered when he embarked with her on an edition of the Elgar Cello Concerto, some years after she had stopped playing: ‘The first thing she said was, “We must scrub out Elgar’s marking of nobilemente!” I explained that we couldn’t do that, but she was determined to make her stamp by flouting this convention (though that was exactly how she played it).

I put in many of her inimitable fingerings and bowings, knowing that they could sound quite contrived in the hands of most players, without her inspiration and lack of physical limitations. I’m afraid we never got past the first movement.’ Wilson, too, recalls seeing Jacqueline’s music (now owned by Barenboim) and finding that her parts were practically unmarked, a testimony to her ability to live music in the moment.

Though her exalted artistic persona was supremely confident, some missed her extreme vulnerability. ‘My impression was that her meteoric rise to fame had left her emotionally vulnerable,’ explains Welsh. ‘The total focus on the cello in her childhood meant her emotional development had been neglected.

She was swept up onto the rollercoaster of an international career, and when, at 27, her illness threw her back on her own resources, she was left with a tenuous grasp on her situation.’ He feels that in the slow movement of the Elgar she touched on something incredibly fragile she found within herself. The effect was unforgettable. Nupen witnessed it in a live performance of the Brahms’s Double Concerto: ‘She said to me “Why are you always crying, Kitty?” It was because her playing tore me up inside.’

Jacqueline du Pre and MS

The years leading up to her MS diagnosis were particularly difficult, when she felt bewildered and lost, not knowing whether she was having a nervous breakdown or whether she had a physical illness. It was in that context that her relationship with her brother-in-law, Christopher ‘Kiffer’ Finzi, briefly developed, something portrayed in the film as du Pré’s ultimate betrayal of her sister.

Interestingly, no mention is made of the fact that this was by no means an isolated incident; other women came into the household; with them, he even fathered two children with his wife’s (apparent) consent. Their daughter, Clare, spoke out after the publication of the book, devastated that a wounding family secret, never discussed, had been shared with the world. She suffered anorexia as a child, a response to the confusing events around her in the Berkshire family farm ‘commune’.

‘Kiffer’ Finzi, Wilson points out in her book, was charismatic, and took advantage of Jackie at a critical point in her life when she was most vulnerable. Just how terrifying this period was for her is illustrated in her response to her diagnosis. Wilson again, ‘I remember she called me up and said she was so relieved. I was horrified by the news, but I realised that what she had been through was so traumatic, even that diagnosis was welcome.’

Another side of her character that was so wrongly portrayed in the film was that of bitchiness and outright cruelty. ‘She was ironic and humorous, a natural comic, but never bitchy,’ retorts Nupen, who captured her sense of fun so many times on camera. ‘I think she probably was the most honest person I’ve ever met,’ recalls Welsh, ‘She would see through self-importance straight away and could be devastatingly direct. I’ll never forget coming round one evening to hear her confronting a minor royal about her reasons for making her son learn the cello. I’m not sure any one else could have spoken to a Duchess like that.’

Inevitably, her illness, which she bore so courageously, brought on bitterness: her central means of expression had been taken away, and anger was often directed at those nearest to her. But she continued to ‘perform’ with great humour. Welsh recalls Lord Harewood taking her out of a cab in front of English National Opera and the two managing to land up on top of each other in the gutter: ‘She was roaring with laughter though she could see how embarrassed he was. She still loved being the centre of attention.’ She embarrassed Welsh when he took her to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. ‘As they were saying their vows, she suddenly said in a very loud voice, “Take me to the front now!’’ She loved the comedy of the situation.’

Jacqueline du Pre and Judaism

In many ways her humdrum suburban background ill-prepared her for the itinerant life of a virtuoso superstar. The narrowness of her home horizons came to the fore when she decided to convert to Judaism to marry Barenboim. Astonishing though it might seem, the du Prés didn’t understand what ‘Judaism’ was. To quote Piers: ‘What is Judaism? Is it a cult? Is it occult? Dad announced at suppertime: “Only one thing to do when in doubt. Call in the vicar.”’

The rift further widened when, in the late ’70s, Iris, Derek and Piers du Pré became born-again Christians. It’s quite clear from Piers’s self-absorbed account of telling Jackie about his ‘conversion’ that he was blithely unaware of her response: that his was an over- simplistic, naive belief, which strengthened her sense of being Jewish. (Many forget she is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Golders Green.) Though she remained very fond of her sister, relations with her parents became strained, she lost all respect for Kiffer and Piers was a rare visitor in her last years.

Re-reading both books, one senses that everyone who came within her orbit felt passionately and, often, possessively about her. There was her family, who not only felt eclipsed, but in some ways surplus to requirements when her career took off; there were the London musicians with whom she played in her early life; there were the paternal figures like William Pleeth, Charles Beare, the Nupens and producer Suvi Grubb, and there was Barenboim and his set, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Zubin Mehta, who became her new musical family.

Many of these supported her to the end of her life, when the family ‘seemed to disappear into thin air’ in Barenboim’s words, and inevitably felt bitter about them profiting from her story. ‘With such a large personality,’ comments Welsh, ‘everyone wants a piece of you. Because of her generosity of spirit, I think we all felt we shared something unique with her through our friendship. But maybe none of us had the whole picture; she was mercurial, and showed different sides of herself to different people. But whatever her mood, being with her always revealed some new depth or insight, and touched one deeply.’

I ask all three how they would best like to remember du Pré. Both Nupen and Welsh alight on the scene in a train from the Portrait film. She’s sitting with the cello hoisted up on to her singing a French folk song and accompanying herself with delightful pizzicato strumming. ‘That seems to capture her essence: shining, amused, spontaneous.’ As Nupen, too, recalls ‘There was no one who came within her orbit who did not leave feeling brighter; she just radiated good will.’

Welsh still listens in awe to her Franck Sonata with Barenboim: ‘At the end of the first movement she changes the colour of the phrase: it knocks you down every single time. How she does it, I’ll never know.’ Wilson ‘adores’ her impetuous, passionate Richard Strauss Don Quixote and her poetic Schumann Cello Concerto with Barenboim. ‘Her playing in the Beethoven Trios is quite extraordinary – one sees it clearly in the film of The Ghost. And, naturally, the unique performances of the Elgar Cello Concerto, both in the recording with Sir John Barbirolli and the filmed version.’ For Christopher Nupen, too, her performances of the Elgar remain burned onto his memory, ‘She seemed almost uniquely able to fulfil the highest promise of great music: to give us glimpses of eternity.’

We named Jacqueline du Pré's interpretation as one of the best recordings of Elgar's Cello Concerto of all time.

Du Pré remembered: the best recordings and films

Elgar Cello Concerto

LSO/Barbirolli

EMI 965 9322

R Strauss

Don Quixote

New Philharmonia/ Sir Adrian Boult

EMI 576 3412

Beethoven Piano Trios

With Pinchas Zukerman, Daniel Barenboim

EMI 350 7982 & 350 8072

Schumann

Concerto in A minor

New Philharmonia/Daniel Barenboim

EMI 562 8032

Jacqueline du Pré in Portrait

Containing two films

Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto; The Ghost
Opus Arte OACN0902D

Jacqueline du Pré: a celebration

Containing the films:

Who was Jacqueline
du Pré?; Remembering Jacqueline du Pré;

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The 1980 interview
Christopher Nupen A07CND

Authors

Helen WallaceArtistic and Executive Director, Kings Place

Helen Wallace is the Artistic and Executive Director of Kings Place, a concert hall in King's Cross, London, and the former editor of BBC Music Magazine and The Strad Magazine.

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