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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

The Great Spanish Tradition (2/2)

The magnetism of Spanish music
Spain was burdened with monolithic political and religious structures; its rulers delighted in pageant and military might; when they sent their ships to invade England they placed such unwieldy cannon on their decks they couldn’t be armed and fired in time to ward off the English defenders. No surprise then that a country revelling in spectacle should develop a taste for great battle symphonies for organ or instrumental combinations. This even entered mass settings. Joan Cererols (1618-80) suffered, like all Spanish composers in the seventeenth century, from the absence of music printing in the Iberian peninsula, and his surviving scores are characteristically thin on musical specifics. However, they do include an accompaniment line, indicating the use of instruments. His Missa de Batalla (Battle Mass) is splendidly arranged for three choirs and may be (we will never know how authentically) accompanied to splendid effect by strings, wind and percussion.

No discussion of Spanish music would be complete without mention of the numerous foreign composers attracted to its native idioms. In his numerous keyboard sonatas Domenico Scarlatti was inspired by the strumming of the guitar, which by then dominated the plucked-string repertoire, and many years later nineteenth and early twentieth-century composers vied with each other in their works in the Spanish style. Some of the greatest music in this vast category was by Debussy and Ravel, whose achievements in their turn had a profound effect on Spanish composers.

Vernacular opera in Spain was, as in most countries, constantly threatened by Italian opera. However, the zarzuela proved resilient. It was Spanish opera with spoken dialogue, much like German Singspiel, but older (the earliest known specimens are by Juan Hidalgo and date from the end of the seventeenth century). In spite of various challenges mounted to it, native Spanish opera revived greatly in the nineteenth century and has been prospering ever since.

Nationalism was the key to Spain’s resurgence as a musical force to be reckoned with. While Lalo, Chabrier and numerous others were churning out superficially Spanish music, Felipe Pedrell was drawing some illustrious native pupils into his midst as he promoted his country’s rich literary and musical heritage; among them were the second great triumvirate of Spanish music – Albéniz, Granados and Falla.

The twentieth-century resurgence
Spanish regional idioms and dances, such as jota, habanera, fandango and seguidillas, again came into their own. All the warmth, the dazzling colour, the racy modal harmonies, the tempestuous vocal idioms were rekindled in the music of these composers. Alongside it one hears music of the greatest delicacy fully worthy of the Golden Age. Albéniz and Granados were truly sons of French impressionism; but their sensitivity to colour and effect in Iberia and Goyescas is quintessentially Spanish.

Falla went further in his often astringent harmonies and gaudy orchestration. He knew Stravinsky’s music intimately: one can hear Petrushka clearly in The Three-Cornered Hat. But unlike some of the others, Falla was not content with touristic Spanish effects: he wanted to distill the Spanish soul. As he grew older he abandoned the folk influence in pursuit of communion with the great masters of the Spanish Renaissance; his unfinished oratorio Atlántida was to have been the definitive expression of this.

In more recent years Spanish composers such as Roberto Gerhard finally recognised the New Viennese School, especially Schoenberg. Spain was and in some ways still is a conservative environment for its musicians. Its vitality owes everything to tradition: more than in almost any other European culture, the close union between popular and art music has nurtured and enriched the work of Spain’s many fine composers. That many of the names cited above are little known to music lovers suggests that we are only slowly unravelling one of music’s best kept secrets.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

The Great Spanish Tradition (1/2)

Ever since the Moors brought lutes to Spain when they invaded in 711, the country’s appetite for plucked string instruments has been insatiable. But as Simon Trezise reveals there’s far more to Spanish music than guitars and castanets.

England and Spain have striking musical affinities. Both had rich and fascinating medieval periods in which invasions and multi-national rulers made them open to widely divergent influences from abroad (‘Spain’ at the time had more of a geographical than a political meaning). The achievements of medieval composers were eclipsed by almost two centuries of absolute mastery in the polyphonic vocal music of the Renaissance. Decline set in in the eighteenth century, though the odd ray of light still illuminates the fairly arid scenery. Then, as if by magic, both countries enjoyed a huge resurgence of creative genius at the end of the Romantic era, drawing succour from French impressionism, and then reacted in divergent but richly creative ways to ‘mainstream’ developments in France and Germany.

From Moorish minstrels to fantasias
Spain has always conjured up strong musical images in people’s minds. Many stem from the quite distinctive taste in instruments of the various regions of Spain. When the Moors invaded in 711 they brought with them numerous instruments which added unprecedented vibrancy to the sounds available to composers on the Iberian peninsula. Among them were diverse percussion instruments, including the bandair (tambourine), and the ud (lute). The latter was particularly fortunate, for Spain developed an unquenchable appetite for plucked string instruments, the best known of which are the vihuela (cross between a lute and a guitar) and the guitar itself, a timeless symbol of Spain. In his celebrated Libro de buen amor Juan Ruiz, archpriest of Hira, cites a huge list of instruments in use in the fourteenth century. He invokes an intoxicating spectacle of strings, wind and percussion bursting into ‘a paean of variegated acclamation like the birds of springtime newly discovering their potency of song’ (from Ann Livermore’s A Short History of Spanish Music).

We know that a great deal of secular and liturgical music was written or improvised during the medieval period. Christians, rather less bigoted then than a few centuries later, delighted in the activities of Moorish minstrelry, just as they relished their instrument makers. Unfortunately not much has survived the ravages of time, and what there is in the famous Calixtine and Las Huelgas Manuscripts is often of a strongly international flavour, extending even to English monody and polyphony.

The early Renaissance period saw the creation of modern Spain with the wedding of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1492, which brought into harness the two most influential states on the peninsula. Notwithstanding the fact that one of their earliest acts was the creation of the notorious Inquisition, this marked a great and in many ways very liberal age for Spanish music. Secular composition was, as ever, flourishing and had not only the distinctive sounds of the various Spanish languages, but also characterful verse forms whose musical setting often drew on folk music. The romance and villancico were the main forms, the romance being a literary one based on some sort of folk tale, and the word villancico applied to virtually everything in Spanish with a prefatory refrain, regardless of the existence of a repeated ‘chorus’; in effect the word meant a Spanish song that could not be mistaken for a romance.

Juan del Encina is best known among the song composers of the time. His music is highly expressive and he composed melodies with a distinctive Spanish accent, attained through quotation or imitation of folksong or dance. His career precisely coincides with the great events of 1492. The sixteenth century saw the publication of a vast collection for the lute-like vihuela, one of the most intimate and beautiful of all instruments of the period. Ornate fantasias by Luis de Milán rub shoulders with wonderful variations on traditional bass lines or melodies; in the twentieth century Rodrigo could ‘poach’ Gaspar Sanz’s Canarios (a later version of a popular dance-like number) without in any way compromising the popular modernity of his Guitar Concerto.

Music that reached to the heavens
The sixteenth century is dominated by the great triumvirate of Morales, Guerrero and Victoria. They wrote mainly church music in the overwhelmingly popular polyphonic style of the period. It wasn’t a cappella music, for all the indications are that the chapels and cathedrals employed instrumentalists for mass and other events. But the style is comparable to that of Byrd, Palestrina and Lassus. Parts move with points of imitation, dissonance is strictly controlled, and often the melodic lines draw on pre-existing material such as a popular song or motet. One cannot pretend that the music sounds Spanish in any striking way, but many have pointed to the expressive qualities of the music, notably its concert with the text (Palestrina often opts for a rather generalised setting); one hears it most vividly in Victoria’s extraordinary Requiem Mass (1605).

Their music also has an elevated, mystical quality quite peculiar to Spain at the time. These three composers are the very pinnacle of Spanish music. Just as Spain reached to the heavens in its choral music, organ builders had been doing amazing things for several centuries, producing instruments of startling colours and wonderfully ornate cases. Antonio de Cabezón was the first great organ composer; his works show a genius for variation and are full of intricate contrapuntal devices. He was succeeded by a number of fine organists, not least Joan Bautista Cabanilles. The keyboard tradition continued in the eighteenth century with Antonio Soler and featured prominently in the late nineteenth-century renaissance.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

Great Masters of the Musical – Part Two

Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin certainly knew how to write tunes. But as Jonathan Webster discovers in the second part of his survey of the century’s greatest musicals, these popular composers are at last gaining respect as writers of ‘serious’ music.

Gershwin, Porter and Berlin are excellent songwriters. But think – where did you first hear their songs? Chances are it was in the jazz club arena rather than in the Broadway theatre or Hollywood cinema. Many of the greatest showstoppers have been taken up by pop and jazz singers and arguably have received their greatest interpretations from a Fitzgerald, Holiday or Sinatra. But what has happened to the shows they were designed for? Here we look at these great songs in the original context of their largely forgotten shows.

The word musical is an all-embracing term which has come to mean many things to different music-lovers. For some it’s a frothy operetta-style entertainment, as epitomised by the works of composers such as Franz Lehár and Sigmund Romberg; for others it signifies the era of the film musical – a form which dawned in spectacular fashion with the 1930’s celluloid showcases for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In our last issue we covered the post-war Broadway musical; now we wind back the clock to the musical comedy between 1900 and 1950.

Continue reading ‘Great Masters of the Musical – Part Two’


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