Parallel Lives I: Jacqueline Du Pré

As a new family memoir pours cold water on the saintly image of the multiple sclerosis-stricken Jacqueline Du Pré, it seems a good time to objectively review the contributions to classical music of the cult performer. Du Pré shared ‘parallel lives’ with three other extremely popular and sometimes wayward musicians – the English singer who succumbed to painful cancer; the American singer who immortalised ‘Ol’ Man River’ but was shunned by his own country which suspected his political beliefs, and the eccentric Canadian pianist who suddenly stopped performing to become a recording recluse. All four carved their own inimitable niches and their recordings live on as poignant reminders of their art. But how have their reputations survived?

Jacqueline Du Pré
Who was she?
Jacqueline Du Pré was born in Oxford in 1945, into a highly musical family. When, as a very young child, she heard the cello for the first time, she insisted that she should learn to play it, and revealed astonishing musical gifts. She studied with the great William Pleeth and made her recital debut at the age of 16 in 1961. She soon became a member of a loose group of musicians who performed chamber music together whenever possible. She and pianist Stephen Bishop (now Kovacevich) had a torrid affair and made a wonderful record during it, but he was replaced in her affections by the extremely upwardly mobile Daniel Barenboim, and they married in Israel in 1967.

The affliction
The already hectic tempo of Jacqueline Du Pré’s life got still faster and no one was surprised that she began showing signs of fatigue at the beginning of the 1970s. In 1973 it turned out, however, that she was suffering from multiple sclerosis, and she soon lost the feeling in her limbs, and had to abandon playing, though she went on teaching. The disease, if the new book is to be believed, had terrible psychological effects too, and Du Pré’s personality, already monstrously egoistic, was soon unmanageable except by her nurse. For the last years of her life she was wholly incapacitated, and she died in 1987.

Why the cult? The music…
She was famous from her first recital at 16, not only because of the passionate intensity of her playing, but because she was such a vital presence. She also quickly made a speciality of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, which she played with an abandon that vanquished any lingering notions that Elgar was a reserved Edwardian – in my view,the piece is ore moving if you take that traditional line, but in the late 1960s Du Pré, abetted on her recording by the heart-on-sleeve Sir John Barbirolli, swept all before her, and that has remained the most famous recording of the work ever since.

…and the woman
The image of the healthy young girl investing her music-making with such wild energy, vigour and passion and then being cut down so cruelly by disease has only heightened the cult value of Jacqueline Du Pré. Documentaries have been made and there was even a play about an instrumentalist cut down by physical illness (Tom Kempinski’s Duet for One was staged with Frances de la Tour in the lead and later filmed with Julie Andrews).

Why is she in the news?
It was never any secret that Du Pré had a private life as passionate as her artistic one, but this month sees the publication of a new book by her brother and sister in which her ruthlessness is revealed – in humid prose which does no one any favours. Eager to dispel any image of saintliness, Du Pré’s brother and sister want to show the Jacqueline they knew and they don’t pull any punches. She is portrayed as a voracious man-eater, on one occasion sleeping with her brother-in-law. When he heard about the book and fearing perhaps that his personal life would be raked over, Du Pré’s husband Daniel Barenboim is said to have asked ‘Why couldn’t they have waited until I have gone?’ The hype is set to continue as the film rights have already been applied for and casting is well underway – Emily Watson, Oscar nominee for her role in last year’s Breaking the Waves is rumoured to play Jacqueline – and another biography by family friend Elizabeth Wilson will soon be published.

Reputation verdict
In her approach to music she was very like her fellow cellist Rostropovich, in that she hugged everything she played in an embrace so intense that it tended to wilt if it wasn’t a robust Romantic growth. In some of the chamber music which she performed with Barenboim and occasionally others, she had to subdue her temperament somewhat. It is always clear, though, that her favourite musical marking was espressivo, which is just what some listeners find winning and what repels those who sometimes like a degree of continence in performances.

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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