Jacqueline du Pré interview: 'You must have spontaneity and too much study destroys that'

Alan Blyth Wed 6th September 2017

Alan Blyth spoke to Jacqueline du Pré for Gramophone's January 1969 issue...

Jacqueline du Pré with her then-husband Daniel Barenboim (photo: Warner Classics)

Jacqueline du Pré with her then-husband Daniel Barenboim (photo: Warner Classics)

All the world loves a lover and since Jacqueline du Pré loves both her cello and Daniel Barenboim the musical world has found reason doubly to adore her. To meet, she conveys an absolute naturalness of manner, somehow reticent and exuberant at the same time. Reputedly shy before interviewers, she seemed to me the easiest person in the world to talk to when we met in between rehearsals at the Royal Festival Hall green room.

She has lived music all her life and yet is in no way cut off from the everyday world; it just seems the only way for her to express herself fully. And that she has been doing since the age of four when, after hearing a cello on the radio, her mother gave her one to play. 'My mother was a tremendous inspiration', Jacqueline told me. 'She guided my first steps, wrote tunes for me to play, and drew pictorial descriptions of the melodies. These were quite beautiful and I used to find them tucked under my pillow in the morning so that I couldn't wait to get my hands on the cello again every day. My mother also taught me composition.

'When I was six, I went to the London Cello School and studied with Herbert Whalen and Alison Dalrymple, who was wonderful with children. There was never any compulsion from anybody. If I wanted to climb a tree, I did that instead. When I was 10, I went to William Pleeth, who has been my "cello Daddy" ever since.

'My schooling proper stopped at that time and I started to have a private tutor. I remember I was envious of my sister and her GCE success. She was — still is — a good flautist, also encouraged by my mother but she has little chance to play now that she is married and has four children.

'I would like to emphasize just how much I owe to Pleeth. He taught me for seven years, got me over a difficult and uncertain time during my adolescence, and by his articulate approach made music really exciting for me. From the minute I first saw him, I admired his warmth. Our paths seldom cross now but when they do we always find time to compare notes.'

Her first success in public was her Wigmore Hall concert when she was 16, since when her career has not looked back. She had spells studying with Tortelier — 'a great musician and inspiration' — when she was 17 and with Rostropovich when she was 21. 'Tortelier was a different sort of teacher from Pleeth. He is a very analytical man and in my first private lessons with him I learnt a lot about the fingers and joints. When I went to the Paris Conservatoire in a masterclass, it wasn't quite the same. There was an audience and I felt I did not gain as much. Rostro is like a volcano and it was exciting to work with him. But all my interpretations stem from Pleeth's grounding — the other two just added their wonderful personalities'.

Jacqueline met Daniel Barenboim at Christmas 1966, at the pianist Fou Ts'ong's house. 'We sat down and made music together — and from then on things developed very fast. We were married soon after the Arab-Israeli war — June 15th, 1967 — between old and new Jerusalem. The whole visit to Israel was a shattering experience, especially playing music to people whose husbands and sons were away fighting. One felt really needed and it was a privilege to help them in some way. We were carried along on a big, emotional wave for three extraordinary weeks.'

Her views on recording are now very 'pro' whereas they were once 'con'. 'At 17, it seemed to me the very opposite of what music-making was about but I've gradually grown to enjoy recording. I find I have to tone things down a bit for the mike. Then it can be very lonely in the studio. There, Suvi Grubb has been an enormous help — he's so musical and a real joy to work with. I like to record the whole of a work at once and then use that as a basis to improve on.'

She has recorded the Schumann Concerto with her husband conducting and more recently the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas with him as pianist. 'We're so lucky that we play so well together as musicians. It's not always that a husband and wife get on well together on the platform and off it.'

She is full of admiration for his organisational powers. 'He has arranged our itinerary so that we spend nearly all our time together. Sometimes we are parted for two days, seldom for more. Then he knows exactly how to manage his own career, spacing all his engagements properly so that he doesn't get over-worked. Of course, I think he's a wonderful conductor and orchestras seem to like him too'.

Jacqueline is very eager to expand her repertory and is delighted that Alexander Goehr, for instance, has written such a grateful work — his Romanze — for the instrument, but she doesn't like playing works that are unsympathetic to her — and these include Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. She admits that she is slow to appreciate most modern music — 'Bartók is really about as far as I go'. In consequence, as the cello solo repertory is comparatively small, she is turning more and more to chamber music. 'And for this we are lucky to have such a wonderful group of friends and this was the basis for our Summer Music on the South Bank.'

She is no believer in excessive practice, and prefers to leave the cello altogether during the days between concerts. 'That makes the rest beneficial and you come back all the fresher for the next concert. You must have spontaneity and too much study destroys that.'

When she undertakes a work new to her, she says she 'charges at it and sends everything flying. I like to make a big impact and not tackle it at first bar by bar. Then I come down to the ground and look at it more carefully, or perhaps you could say that out of the chaos I put the bits together again.'

Off the platform, she likes films — 'nothing too tragic' — and looking at paintings. 'I used to paint myself but I've hidden my attempts bashfully away'. Then she has suddenly discovered she loves cooking. 'Sometimes when Danny wants me to run through a piece, I now say "no, I want to cook".'

Although she would like to have several children, she could never stop playing for any length of time. 'I could never live without it'.

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