The name Jacqueline du Pré (1945 – 1987) is still surrounded by esteem. Rarely has someone played the cello so accurately and with so much passion as Du Pré. As a thirteen-year-old performer she made her debut on British television. Seven years later, America lay at her feet thanks to her overwhelmingly beautiful performance of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. On a recently released box containing 23 CDs, you can hear how exceptional her playing was. The cellist died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 42.
It was love at first sound: from the moment the five-year-old Jacqueline du Pré held a cello in her hands she knew she had found her destiny. During a short holiday with her parents, she cried because she missed her instrument. Her fellow pupils and students admired her talent, but she had no real friends at school. She loved her cello more than people.
The intimate relationship she maintained with her cello struck critics: “Jacqueline du Pré plays passionately as if she is making love to her instrument.” Visitors to her concerts sometimes felt like voyeurs. Her expressive style was un-English, people often did not believe that she was British. Yet Jacqueline Du Pré was born in Oxford. She owes her French surname to her father who was from Jersey.
“Du Pré’s playing sounds fresh, natural and spontaneous. Her powerful tone is polished and her technique is absolutely perfect,” wrote the New York Times when her career had just started. In the years that followed, superlatives fell short and the quality of Du Pré’s concerts and recitals was simply beyond words.
Daniel Barenboim (1942) broke through her social isolation. When Du Pré met the pianist and later conductor they made music together for hours. “It was an enormous shock for me to discover that I could have this degree of communication with another person,” she said. Barenboim proposed her to marry him. He asked her to convert to Judaism as well, which she agreed upon, to her parents’ shock. They married in Jerusalem during the Six Day War. They cancelled planned performances in order to give a musical boost to the Israeli troops.
From then on, Barenboim made their tours run parallel. The “golden couple” often appeared on stage together, either as part of Barenboim’s chamber quintet or with an orchestra conducted by Barenboim. Du Pré’s chamber music acquired legendary status: the two Brahms sonatas for cello and piano, Beethoven’s piano trios, Chopin’s and Cesar Franck’s cello sonatas can all be found in the collector’s box. 35 years after her death, they sound as beautiful as when they were recorded.
The energetic Barenboim only needed four hours of sleep a night. He made sure that their agendas had no empty spaces. As the biggest star Du Pré earned more than Barenboim and he did everything to capitalize on her talent. Between a European tour and a concert series in America was only just enough time for the flight. The grueling work pace was good for her reputation, though. This productive period yielded a large number of successful albums with both live recordings and recordings from London’s Abbey Road studios.
In 1970 Du Pré announced that she had serious physical complaints which made it difficult for her to play. Almost everyone, including her husband, thought her problems were mental. Doctors advised her to take things easy for a while. In 1971 she noticed a slight improvement and recorded some sonatas by Chopin and César Franck. These turned out to be her last recordings; a year later, she was no longer able to play the cello.
What made Du Pré’s illness all the more tragic was that she had just begun to learn and appreciate the art of conversation and dealing with other people. Barenboim provided a spacious London wheelchair-friendly home, but took on a job as a conductor in Paris. Du Pré became isolated again, just as she had been in her youth. She gave a few cello lessons, although this took more and more effort. Du Pré’s main outlet was psychiatrist Dr Joffe, whom she visited several times a week. It was a great tragedy for her when he suddenly died of a heart attack at the age of 50.
Meanwhile, her husband had secretly started a second family in Paris. Jacqueline’s parents believed that her illness was due to her conversion to Judaism. She herself said that she had taken this step primarily to allow Barenboim’s later children to grow up in the Jewish tradition, and that her simple faith in God had remained unchanged. It is bitter to realize that during Du Pré’s illness, Barenboim already had children with the other woman: Russian pianist Elena Basjkirova.
After the death of the acclaimed and lamented cellist, her brother and sister Piers and Hilary du Pré made themselves heard. Hilary had been an excellent pianist in her younger years and people around her had expected her to conquer the world and not Jacqueline. Hilary chose for a traditional life with husband and children and seemed to feel fine with her situation. That she and her brother spoke out loud in their memoir A Genius in the Family came as a surprise to many.
Hilary posthumously accused Jacqueline of seducing her husband. The story was vigorously denied by Daniel Barenboim and others. The general public seemed to enjoy the gossip and the book was edited into a film by Anand Tucker under the title Hilary and Jackie. In 2021 actress Miriam Margolyes unverifiably claimed in her memoir This Much Is True that Du Pré died in an assisted suicide. The biography Jacqueline du Pré, A Life published by Carol Easton in 1989 has a more neutral tone and focuses mainly on the music. The same can be said about the moving film portraits that Christopher Nupen made during and in the run-up to Du Pré concerts.
After all, Jacqueline du Pré’s short life revolved around music. Fortunately, she left behind so many excellent recordings that 23 CDs could be filled with it!
Jacqueline du Pré en Daniel Barenboim – Brahms Cello Sonata No. 2, Op.99 – II. Adagio affettuoso:
Jacqueline Du Pré – Piano Trio in D major – Beethoven: