Were this a just and kind universe overseen by a benevolent being, cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987) would today be a mischievous seventy-four year old, spending her time playing the music she loves with a revolving assortment of the world’s most brilliant musicians and teaching bright young talents to see music with the passionate commitment that marked her own charmed youth. She would still be here with us, smiling as only she could, and swaying her shoulders as she continues to share with the world her remarkable, instinctive insight into the greatest works of the classical tradition.
Would that were so. But the universe cares little for justice or kindness, and grinds all alike eventually in the maw of its profound indifference, and some with a ferocity too horrible to contemplate or relentless to ignore. Jacqueline du Pré’s phenomenally promising career ended at age twenty-eight, cut short by the multiple sclerosis that numbed her hands, took her legs, and ultimately ended her life at the cruel age of forty-two.
To watch du Pré play the cello was to observe music being sculpted from its primal matter. She combined a faultless musical intuition and technique with an openness of playing style that invited audiences to participate in her own exhilaration at making music with other people. If you close your eyes and listen to one of her recordings, you’ll hear the work of a master who knows not only how to play each note to evoke a composer’s meaning, but how to prepare those notes, to lay a groundwork so that when bow hits string the effect is immediately and profoundly right. But if you open your eyes and watch that same recording, a new universe opens, as you watch this performer throwing back her head, swaying around her instrument as her whole being joins into the work of her hands to convey the music’s essence and impact. That extra element, that visual invitation to join in the progression of the notes with one’s eyes as well as ears, made her beloved where previous cellists were respected, and made her premature disappearance from music all the more profound a loss for lovers of classical performance.
To watch du Pré play the cello was to observe music being sculpted from its primal matter. She combined a faultless musical intuition and technique with an openness of playing style that invited audiences to participate in her own exhilaration at making music with other people.
Tracing the thread of Jacqueline du Pré’s story is an imposing task. Mutually contradictory accounts of her life and personality abound, each coated in layers of bias and self-serving perspective that make the true history difficult to unearth, and in particular the course of her youth and upbringing. In her final years, in the grips of an all-encompassing depression and bottomless loneliness, she shared stories of being locked in her room and made to practice as a child, of children at school forming a ring around her while chanting “We hate Jackie”, of an abnormal childhood filled with cold isolation when all she ever wanted was love and to do normal things with normal people.
As against those tales there are the stories of those who knew her growing up, who declare that she wasn’t so much actively disliked in school as ignored. Her robust practice schedule meant that she only took the barest minimum of classes in school, and so other children simply didn’t see her enough to think one way or another about the strange blonde girl whom the adults talked so admiringly about but who never showed her gifts. She certainly practiced a great deal, but as her early teachers recall, and anybody attending her concerts could testify, her communion with her instrument was a profound, almost spiritual, experience. She came alive when playing it, and grew morose and moody when separated from it for too long a period. Her mother was a musician who expected great things from her, but who also, by all accounts, went to great trouble to make sure that their household was a normal British one that did normal British things. Jacqueline’s gift was to be developed, but she was not to be trotted eternally from competition to competition, earning awards and ribbons to satiate by proxy the frustrated musical ambitions of her mother.
She was a prodigy, but her gift was a source of indifference to her father, and was something to be kept within the bounds of normalcy by her mother, and the musician who emerged from that experience was one of deep musical feeling but practically no musical ego. She had an infallible sense of what was musically right – you could play her a piece she had never heard before and she would simply know what notes must come next – but never acted the prima donna. When on tour with her husband, the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, she was happy to sit in the back row of the cello section, hidden from view, playing along as just another member of the orchestra, just to experience the deep joy of Making Music.
Her early years, with their deep devotion to perfecting the art of employing the cello to express meaning and feeling, as meaningful as they could be, came with corresponding costs that du Pré would pay throughout her life. Her regular education was spotty, and she would always feel an inability to participate in the elevated conversations of those around her in adulthood, and even her musical education was concentrated so specifically on the emotive aspects of her instrument that, when the ability to play that instrument was cruelly removed, she found it difficult to find solace in or even take interest in music that was not part of the cellist’s canon. More profoundly, the years spent in deep isolated conversation with her instrument produced in the girl a painful longing for normal relations and normal activities, a yearning to be recognized and loved in a way that she did not experience in her own stiff and protective proper British home. Riding public transportation, seeing films at the theater, staying up late talking with friends, these were the simple things that struck her with the force of revelation when she finally emerged into the wider world, and that grinning delight in the normal endeared her to all who met her even as her heightened need for love would intensify the tragedy of her lonely late years.
Her instinct honed by the compassionate and empathetic style of her teacher, William Pleeth, she was ready for her professional debut in 1961 at Wigmore Hall. Sixteen years old at the time, she had performed here and there at local festivals, and had been supported financially by the Suggia Award since winning it at age eleven, but had been largely spared the grueling prodigy circuit. Famously lacking in stage fright, she bounded into her first performance with the open zeal for music-making that would characterize the rest of her career, and set her audience ablaze with admiration for this new talent suddenly arrived upon the scene.
In the wake of the rave reviews resulting from that performance, du Pré was invited to perform at concert halls all across England, and suddenly found herself thrust into the role of star performer. With the life of a soloist came the company of other soloists, drawn together by a common lifestyle and love of music. As Jacqueline acclimated to the world outside the strict proprieties of her childhood, she found to her delight that she quite enjoyed living. She relished playing music with other musicians at their homes until two and three in the morning, flirting with the steady stream of admirers drawn to the “golden girl” of British music, and treating herself to food and clothes and films with the money that flowed in from a British public surrendering itself utterly to the new pleasure of hearing, and seeing, this incomparable musician unfolding her art.
As a performing musician, her tastes ran to the Classical and Romantic, veering only seldom into the Modern. Her on-stage repertoire therefore consisted primarily of the few great orchestral cello pieces from the 18th through early 20th centuries – the Haydn, Schumann, Saint-Saens, and Dvorak concerti, and the piece that she, by the force of her musical conviction, made so entirely her own that it is well-nigh impossible to imagine it played by hands other than hers – the Elgar cello concerto. Underperformed prior to du Pré, her international advocacy of this mature and complicated piece of music placed it squarely in the center of the modern cellist’s repertoire.
She also enjoyed tremendously playing chamber music with like-minded musicians, and that joy at performing in small informal groups was infectiously shared by people tuning in on their televisions to watch behind the scenes footage of her, Barenboim, Perlman, and Zukerman messing around at rehearsals, swapping instruments and joking in between performances of clear mutual enjoyment. They were the new generation of classical musicians – dedicated to their music but willing to drop the austere facade of the Classical Performer to show the joy and spontaneity of that could be had from the thing they loved most.
When du Pré met Daniel Barenboim at one of the regular late-night musical gatherings of London’s classical elite, they played together for hours, each finding in the other the partner who intuitively understood their approach to music. For her part, Jacqueline, with her ever-ready smile and wide-eyed hunger for the world, was easy to fall in love with, while Barenboim represented a whole new world to du Pré. He too was a child prodigy, a fiercely talented pianist with a voluminous memory and unbounded energy and ambition. He regularly made do with three or four hours of sleep a night, and devoted the rest of his time to mastering the classical canon, socializing with the intellectual elite, and sewing up his position as a preeminent force in the new generation of classical music. A dedicated Zionist, he represented a bounty of passion and commitment that du Pré did not experience in her sheltered youth, and she found herself falling deeply in love with him.
To her family’s understated horror, she converted to Judaism in order to marry him, and proceeded to get swept up in his nationalist sentiments, performing concerts in Tel Aviv during the Six Day War of 1967 to bolster the Israeli people and raise money for the war effort, and marrying him at the conclusion of the war in an act of spontaneous romanticism caught up in the euphoria of victory.
For better or worse, du Pré was now harnessed to the galloping pace set by Barenboim’s ambition. When they played together, life was perfect – audiences loved seeing the newlyweds onstage, appreciating each other’s craft and having a clearly wonderful time producing music together – but the pace of life was punishing and du Pré increasingly found herself exhausted by the travel and uninterested in the endless rounds of social functions that international touring required. She had always adored playing with the children of friends and wanted some of her own, but the pace of touring that her husband set clearly rendered such a commitment an impossibility, and so they saw their London home less and less, and du Pré found herself growing more and more tired.
Most attributed that fatigue to the frantic pace of the touring soloist, and failed to connect it as a symptom with other peculiar tendencies that Jacqueline was experiencing – numbness in her fingers (easily chalked up to the wear and tear of regular performance), and an increased tendency to suddenly fall while walking, and difficulty getting up when she did (laughed off as the result of too much drink or not enough sleep). As all of these symptoms worsened, and du Pré’s playing began to suffer as a result, people began to take the state of her health seriously, but only to place the blame on her mind. She must, doctors and friends concluded, be going through psychological problems, to be treated by therapy and rest. Simple as that.
For du Pré, it was a terrifying analysis. She believed that she was losing her mind, that the physical things happening to her were the result of her brain’s descent into madness, and every time she picked up a cello and found that she couldn’t feel the strings she only took it as a confirmation that she was mentally unraveling. She took a break from performing in 1971/72 and convinced herself (or perhaps was convinced by impatient booking agents) that she had rested enough to return to the stage in 1973. That return was an unmitigated disaster. Critics noticed the deterioration in her playing, and she was struck anew with the horror of her fingers not informing her mind where they were. At her final concert, she had difficulty even opening her own case, but was pressed by Leonard Bernstein to continue. She had no strength and found even holding her bow a tax upon her energies, but worse still she had lost all ability to feel the notes on the cello and had to resort to visually estimating how far apart her fingers should be. Her last performance went as awfully as you might imagine it would under those conditions and Bernstein took her to the hospital immediately afterwards.
Du Pré had hit her breaking point at last, the point at which those around her were forced to consider that perhaps her problems were physical and not psychological. Multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks the myelin sheaths of your body’s neurons, which are responsible for proper brain-body signaling, strikes different people with different severity, but at its worse it condemns the patient to an invalid existence, unable to move one’s legs because of neural deterioration, or read a book or even watch television because of head tremors that makes sustained focus on a point impossible, all rimmed around by a pervasive fatigue.
It is a disease infamously difficult to diagnose, as its initial symptoms emerge slowly over time and can be mistaken, as was the case with Jacqueline, for many other diseases. In October 1973, after ten months of testing, du Pré at last received the diagnosis that she had MS. In the first flush of the news there was relief. She phoned friends to let them know that she was not going crazy, but that there was something physically responsible for her numbness and fatigue. That happiness that her mind was sound, however, was soon overclouded by the emerging realization that, in all likelihood, she would never play the cello in public again. Looking over the course of her life, she realized that she had put all of herself into learning one skill, and now that she could no longer do that one thing, it was hard to avoid asking herself the question, “Who am I now?”
Jacqueline du Pré’s phenomenally promising career ended at age twenty-eight, cut short by the multiple sclerosis that numbed her hands, took her legs, and ultimately ended her life at the cruel age of forty-two.
The narrowness of her early life increasingly haunted her as she experienced the regular cycle of Crisis and Plateau that characterizes multiple sclerosis. Barenboim attempted to interest her in broadening her musical horizons, in reading the scores of string quartets so that they could enjoy studying and interpreting them together, but she couldn’t summon the interest to train herself away from the cello repertoire she knew. Fearful for the future, watching herself descend into a state of complete dependence on others, sexually frustrated and guilty, and increasingly isolated within the walls of her home, du Pré reached greedily for any affection the world might offer.
She visited a psychotherapist five times a week until her physical deterioration meant he had to come to her, and used the sessions to vent her anger about the cruel fate she was enduring, and her consuming need for love that couldn’t be satisfied by the increasingly absent Barenboim, who could not bring himself to sacrifice indefinitely his career as a touring conductor to play the role of permanent caretaker, and who ultimately drifted into a new relationship while still married to Jacqueline, or by the series of nurses and caretakers hired to care for her on a daily basis. She found satisfaction in plays and in dining with friends (at least until she reached the point of no longer being able to feed herself), and even returned to the stage on a couple of occasions to perform the reading parts in Peter and the Wolf and The Carnival of the Animals, but the majority of her time was spent teaching when she had the energy to do so, and listening to recordings of herself from happier times. Fewer and fewer visitors came to call as she descended into her final years, but she still saw the occasional student, one of whom, Gerard Leclerc, has left behind this poignant recollection from 1986 of the last time she played her cello.
“At one of my last lessons she said, ‘My cello is mad at me because I haven’t played it for years now.’ I said, ‘Why don’t we play it now?’ I took it out and leaned it up against her, and I guided her hand up and down the fingerboard. I held her hand and the bow in my other hand, and just played some open strings. She didn’t say much, but it was important. It goes too deep to say in simple words. I’m quite sure that was the last time she ever touched it.”
On October 19, 1987, Jacqueline du Pré came down with pneumonia and lost consciousness by midday. Anthony Pleeth, son of her beloved childhood teacher, was there at the time and recalled something he had heard about people still being able to hear while unconscious, and went over to the gramophone in her room to put on her haunting recording of the Schumann Cello Concerto. Accompanied by the sound of the instrument that had given her some of her life’s greatest moments, du Pré slipped from this world and into the eternity of humanity’s esteem and gratitude.
FURTHER READING: Okay, there’s a whole big issue here to get into. The basic book to have is Carol Easton’s lovingly researched Jacqueline du Pré: A Biography (1989). Easton was a steady visitor of du Pré during her final years, and interviewed all manner of people who came through her life at one time or another. The more famous/infamous book about du Pré is that written by her sister and born-again Christian brother (who did not forgive her for converting to Judaism), A Genius in the Family (1996), which was the basis for the scurrilous and sensationalist film Hillary and Jackie (1998) about which the less said the better. Her siblings raise a number of accusations about her conduct while suffering from MS that they very courageously waited until after she was dead and therefore unable to defend herself to publish. I suppose it (the book, not the movie) is instructive as insight into how her family perceived her, but I think I’ll be sticking to Easton.
FURTHER WATCHING & LISTENING: We are going on a journey now. It will be a beautiful one, but not a happy one. First, here is an appreciation of du Pré from footage Christopher Nupen shot during her glowing years of superstardom which I think does a good job showing how she penetrated the hearts of the world so completely.
Nupen returned to interview du Pré several years into her battle with MS, and it is so unutterably sad, her eyes telling one story even as her smile and words attempt to boldly press forward, that I can only rarely summon the strength to watch it all the way through. The segment beginning at 3:22 in particular just guts me.
And finally, here is the quintessential du Pré, in the recording that, one hopes, at least some part of her heard as her mind quietly descended into its final rest, the Schumann cello concerto, with Daniel Barenboim conducting…
Lead image credit: Fair Use, cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987) with husband, Daniel Barenboim and the Davydov Stradivarius violoncello