Jacqueline du Pré and Elgar's Cello Concerto

Sarah Kirkup
Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Sarah Kirkup speaks to those closest to du Pré to understand what makes her legacy so unique

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Some musicians stand the test of time. Their gifts and talents for music-making continue long after they have ceased to perform, thanks to audio and visual recordings and the memories of those whose lives they have touched through personal encounters and concert performances.

Jacqueline du Pré is one such musician. This year marks half a century since her classic recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra. Not only that but, were she still with us, she would have been celebrating her 70th birthday this year. Yet despite the passing of time, her presence remains keenly felt.

What was it about her musicianship that made her unique? Was she, perhaps, in the right place at the right time? The 1960s signified a social and cultural revolution during which a more liberal, expanded way of thinking became the norm. Du Pré, with her extrovert style of playing, fitted into this new ideal. As Daniel Barenboim says, ‘She was so free, emotional and carefree – not careless – that perhaps she represented what many people in England wished they could be but didn’t quite manage to be.’

In recent times, it’s been almost impossible to separate du Pré’s achievements as a musician from the tragedy of her early death from multiple sclerosis at the age of just 42. I for one find it difficult to hear one of her recordings or watch her on film without feeling a sense of loss. What could have been? What was still to come? Here is an artist whose career as a professional cellist lasted barely a decade, and yet in that time she revealed herself to be both a fine chamber musician and a soloist. Her recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms cello sonatas, with Stephen Kovacevich and Barenboim respectively, testify to this, as do her many concerto recordings, which include not just the Elgar but also those by Boccherini, Haydn, Dvořák, Schumann, Delius and Saint-Saëns. What would she have been capable of had she not had to retire at the age of 28? Would contemporary music have gained more of an appeal for her? (Notwithstanding Alexander Goehr’s Romanza, a piece written expressly for her in 1968 and which she evidently enjoyed playing, du Pré frequently voiced her dislike of ‘modern’ music.) Would she have been active in expanding the repertoire for cello through the commissioning of new works? What new musical partnerships and collaborations would she have developed? Listening to her perform the Elgar, in particular, the sense of nostalgia and yearning already present in that work can take on a new dimension when considering the debilitating illness that was just around the corner. But perhaps there is a danger in viewing du Pré’s musical achievements through the prism of tragedy. As Barenboim says of his first wife: ‘People try to make her musical importance relative to her illness, but I’m absolutely sure that she would have preferred to be known for her music.’

From the age of four, when she first heard the cello on Children’s Hour on the radio, du Pré was drawn to the instrument: ‘That is the sound I want to make,’ she told her mother. Iris du Pré immediately found a full-size instrument for her daughter, who wasted no time in setting about mastering it. Her attraction to the instrument was instant and intense; by the age of six she was performing on stage at the London Cello School and, by all accounts, stealing the limelight. Many witnesses during her short career testify to her lack of nerves ahead of a performance or a recording. In fact, it seems that she was perhaps more comfortable performing than not; as she once noted in her diary, ‘An artist can be at his loneliest in company; and at his fullest, most replete and expansive when alone with his art.’ Even filmmaker Christopher Nupen, who was a close friend of du Pré, admits that although ‘she was not unhappy when she was not playing the cello, she was at her happiest playing it and playing it well’. And playing it well invariably meant performing to an audience; an audience – whether comprising schoolchildren, acquaintances or the paying public – was what du Pré thrived on. As she said to Stephen Kovacevich (then Stephen Bishop), her one-time duo partner: ‘I’ve been blessed with a god-given talent and it’s my privilege to share it with my friends.’

It was this desire to communicate with others – and the seemingly effortless ability to do so – that made du Pré such an exceptional musician. It’s the one subject on which everyone I speak to for this article agrees. For Barenboim, she was ‘a musical conversationalist’. For Kovacevich, she ‘always had something different to say’. For the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who recorded the Elgar with Barenboim in 2013, she ‘had a direct line of communication with everyone’. And for Nupen, she ‘radiated something when she played’.

It was as if her instrument was, to quote Stravinsky, ‘the vessel through which the music flowed’. The cello was a means to an end, and, despite her inferiority complex when it came to technique (when Rostropovich asked her, in 1966, what she wanted to learn from him, ‘technique’ was her immediate response), she was able to find her way around any practical difficulties for the sake of the music. Yet she wasn’t particularly interested in learning the story behind the work in question or expanding her knowledge about the composer. As her friend the pianist Guthrie Luke has said: ‘I asked her, “When did Haydn write this concerto?” She had no idea and simply didn’t care. There was no point in discussing such things with her. She played the work superbly, without knowing anything about its background history.’ It seemed the music told her all she needed to know. As Barenboim says, ‘She had a capacity that was very rare – she could become one with the music. She didn’t have to learn the notes and think what to do with them – there was an immediate reaction to the music, as if she heard what she read.’ He continues: ‘She hadn’t benefited from having a thorough training in theory and harmony but she had an uncanny instinct and was able to transmit that immediately.’

Everyone who saw du Pré play was caught up in the passion she conveyed, even though her wild physical movements were not to everyone’s taste. Perhaps English critics at the time weren’t used to such overt displays of emotion; perhaps, as Kovacevich suggests, there was a certain amount of jealousy involved. Or perhaps there was, at times, an excess of emotion. But, as Barbirolli once said, ‘When you’re young, you should have an excess of everything. If you haven’t, what are you going to pare off later on?’ Barenboim agrees, adding that ‘her excesses were always in very good taste’.

In any case, whether or not it was ‘appropriate’, du Pré’s physicality became her trademark, and for the most part, audiences not only in England but also in Europe and, particularly, the US took her to their hearts. As Kovacevich recalls of the first time he heard her play (making her Wigmore Hall debut in 1961): ‘We all fell for her. We were astonished at the level of communication and inspiration.’ Not only that, he and others close to her are adamant that any movement on stage was entirely natural and akin to the music. As Nupen insists, ‘There was never a single bat of the eyelid that was affectation.’ Half a decade on, and the films of du Pré seem to reflect a joy of music-making rather than anything else. Her movements hardly seem wild – perhaps, thanks to Lang Lang and others, we’ve grown used to a more ‘showmanship’ style of playing – and in fact don’t detract from the music at all. If anything, it could be said that they enhance it. She knows when the music requires her to pour her heart out and when she needs to hold back – and her movements reflect this.

Du Pré also had a tender, more restrained side, as Kovacevich was reminded recently when he was sent a recording of a broadcast he had all but forgotten. ‘I was so surprised at how subdued she could be,’ he muses. ‘The word innig – “inside” – comes to mind.’ Kovacevich has great affection for the recording he made with her of the two Beethoven sonatas, particularly the Second. ‘At that time – and in fact it’s the same today – there were only a handful of people who had some instinctive sense about how late Beethoven was different,’ he tells me. ‘There are some things Jackie – or “Superduper” as I used to call her – does that directly capture Beethoven’s deep but sometimes almost abstract expression. In late Beethoven, there are phrases that are officially empty but of course they’re not – they’re revealing the absence of conventional musical ideas and the withdrawal into something completely unconventional. Jackie somehow understood this.’

Du Pré was an enthusiastic chamber music player and everyone who played with her was struck by her remarkable intuition. Back in 1963, when she was seriously questioning whether she wanted to be a professional cellist, chamber music remained a joy for her and this joy was infectious. As the violinist Ana Chumachenco has recalled, ‘The force of her intuition was incredible.’ It was much the same with her duo partners. Kovacevich recalls an ‘instant rapport and appreciation of each other’s gift’. There has been talk in the past of Kovacevich’s ‘classical’ style being an antidote to du Pré’s more flamboyant way of playing, but the pianist wasn’t really aware of that. ‘If she and I came to a point where we couldn’t agree, it was normally about tempo,’ he recalls. ‘One of us would flip a coin, and whoever won, that movement was theirs.’ That rapport was instant with Barenboim, too: ‘The first evening I met her was at the home of Fou Ts’ong and Zamira Menuhin,’ he recalls. ‘We played chamber music and it was an immediate concert. It was perfectly natural playing with her.’ It’s a point echoed by violinist Pinchas Zukerman, who recalls of his chamber collaborations with du Pré and Barenboim, ‘We never wrote things down, we never discussed tempi – it just fitted.’

But despite du Pré’s gifts as a chamber music player, it was her association with the Elgar Cello Concerto, which she first performed aged 17, that fuelled the public’s imagination. Beatrice Harrison had recorded a complete version of the Elgar in 1928 with the composer conducting, and Pablo Casals had made a recording of it in 1945 with Sir Adrian Boult; other recordings followed, but none has earned the astonishing status and success among record buyers as du Pré’s 1965 version with Barbirolli. The conductor had been following du Pré’s progress ever since he had sat on the adjudicating panel of the Suggia Gift award when du Pré was 10 years old. When they eventually gave their first concert together – with the Hallé at the Royal Festival Hall in April 1965 – it was a performance of the Elgar. Barbirolli was steeped in the Elgar tradition, they were both British musicians, the young du Pré was able to breathe new life into an ‘autumnal’ work…It was a perfect match.

Four months later, at Kingsway Hall in London, du Pré and Barbirolli were joined by the LSO to record the work. It was a momentous occasion, as Gramophone critic Edward Greenfield recalls: ‘The orchestra wasn’t in the best of moods because of some internal dispute. . .They recorded the first movement and the scherzo almost in one go, and at the end of that the LSO, forgetting their bad temper, broke out into spontaneous applause, something that is relatively rare in a recording session.’

Du Pré’s interpretation continues to have much the same impact today. ‘It’s still my favourite recording,’ says Weilerstein. ‘But when I was 12 I decided to learn the Elgar myself and I had to develop my own relationship with the work so I put her recording away.’ Steven Isserlis talks of a similar desire to distance himself from such a landmark recording. Only now that he’s recorded the work himself (for the second time) has he dared to listen to it again.

Du Pré went on to record the work once more, with Barenboim, and in 1967 Nupen filmed them both performing it with the New Philharmonia Orchestra at Wood Lane studios before an invited audience. The film is a moving testament to both the rapport between the two musicians and du Pré’s ability to express, with directness and searing intensity, the emotional core of Elgar’s ‘war requiem’. Amazingly, Nupen filmed the whole concerto in one take: ‘I was nervous because I’d never shot a live concert in my life,’ he admits. ‘For six weeks afterwards my crew were coming to me and saying how inspiring the experience had been.’

As I mentioned earlier, while researching this piece I found myself wondering if du Pré was a product of her time – if the period in which she lived was particularly conducive to her ‘celebrity’ appeal. Had she lived earlier or later, perhaps she might not have enjoyed such wide-ranging influence.

For Nupen, the 1960s was certainly ‘a time of discovery. Because of television, Jackie and this new generation of musicians – Barenboim, Zukerman, Ashkenazy, Perlman – were discovering a new world andmaking a new world. When people had something to say, they could address the entire population for the first time in history.’ Kovacevich agrees that it was ‘a golden age’. He enthuses: ‘The audiences were younger, marvellous artists came, you could afford the tickets… Freedom was all around.’ Barenboim, meanwhile, admits that du Pré ‘had a classical status comparable to The Beatles’.

So perhaps the buzz of the 1960s and its accompanying technology propelled du Pré into the spotlight a little quicker than might otherwise have been the case – but most people I speak to believe she would have been famous whenever she had been born. Says Nupen, ‘The essential thing with any artist is what they radiate and how the public responds to that,’ while Weilerstein is convinced that ‘the core of du Pré’s artistry is timeless’.

I had also wondered if being a woman helped du Pré on her way to stardom? Female solo cellists were still relatively rare half a century ago (at least of the calibre of du Pré), and her magnificent presence on the podium – big dress, commanding physique, long, flowing locks – can’t have done her any harm in the public eye. As Kovacevich says, ‘Her appearance on stage was so wonderful – I’m trying to think of a masculine equivalent but I just can’t.’ Barenboim isn’t convinced, however, and nor is Weilerstein: ‘Her sex is completely irrelevant to me,’ she says. ‘It was more that she was so open and I wanted to be that way.’ Nupen finds the middle ground: ‘Her playing had nothing to do with femininity but her appeal to the world did.’

As for du Pré herself, she had mixed feelings about her role as a female cellist. In one interview, she denied any conflict between being a woman and a musician: ‘I can’t see that being a woman limits my playing, technically, in any way.’ Later, however, when preparing to perform Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto – and probably feeling rather daunted at the prospect of taking over from where the work’s dedicatee, Rostropovich, had left off – she said: ‘A woman cannot play as a man plays – she hasn’t the physique or the energy.’ Perhaps this contradictory nature of hers accounts for her ability always to say something unique in performance; as Nupen recalls, ‘One of the great things about Jackie was that even when she recorded the same piece twice it was different the second time. In live performance, too, she was constantly doing things that surprised, and yet made them feel absolutely right. How something can be right and surprising is a mystery.’

Perhaps the word ‘mystery’ is the key here. In vain I’ve been trying to find a stone left unturned, a clue, a reason, to explain why du Pré had, and continues to have, such influence on fellow musicians and music lovers alike. But some things can’t be explained – they just are. As Nupen says, ‘To explain things is to devitalise them.’ We should just be grateful that, through her films and recordings (her later recordings in particular are considered to be as vital and natural as her on-stage performances), we can experience first hand the talent that was Jacqueline du Pré.

But these recorded documents are only part of her legacy. Look at how she single-handedly manoeuvred the Elgar Cello Concerto into the mainstream cello repertoire. Or how she directly influenced musicians who are still dominating the classical music scene in the 21st century. Barenboim, for example, credits her with teaching him ‘a huge amount about string playing. . .Unlike the piano, with a string instrument you have a whole range of colours at your disposal. I learned a lot from her.’ Kovacevich, meanwhile, says that, musically, she ‘loosened me up – and I’m sure some of that continued’. And let’s not forget du Pré’s ongoing influence, via her recordings and teachings, on Isserlis, Weilerstein and the other great cellists of today.

It’s easy, particularly for the younger generations who only knew of her during or after her illness, to associate du Pré’s achievements with her early death, but, as both Nupen and Barenboim have warned, this is misguided; as Nupen says, ‘To view her music through the tragedy is a ghastly mistake.’ Like many other great musicians and composers before her, du Pré had her life cut short, but it’s her music in all its glory that lives on – and surely that’s what she herself would have wanted.

Recommended recordings

Elgar Cello Concerto

Jacqueline du Pré vc LSO / Sir John Barbirolli 

(EMI/Warner Classics) 

Fifty years on, the recording that sealed du Pré’s reputation as a pioneer of the Elgar Cello Concerto remains as visceral and heartfelt as ever. ‘It is a totally committed performance,’ wrote Trevor Harvey in his review. ‘And though every phrase is perfection, the interpretation is strong in its overall conception of each movement.’

Beethoven Cello Sonatas Nos 3 & 5

Jacqueline du Pré vc Stephen Bishop pf 

(EMI Gemini)

The Fifth Sonata was a highlight of du Pré and Kovacevich’s Royal Festival Hall concert a month before the recording, and represents superbly their flourishing partnership. According to critic John Borwick, ‘Their playing has a youthful zest and freshness about it’.

Brahms Cello Sonatas Nos 1 & 2

Jacqueline du Pré vc Daniel Barenboim pf 

(EMI Gemini)

These Brahms sonatas exhibit playing that is, according to Joan Chissell, ‘quite extraordinarily expressive and beautiful’. Are the tempos and rhythms too self-indulgent to be authentically Brahmsian? Perhaps, but this recording is still legendary.

Jacqueline du Pré In Portrait 

Pinchas Zukerman vn Jacqueline du Pré vc New Philharmonia Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim pf

Film director Christopher Nupen

(BBC/Opus Arte/Allegro Films)

This contains two films, Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto and The Ghost (a performance of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio). The former is noteworthy for its complete filmed performance of the Elgar with Barenboim conducting. As Edward Greenfield wrote, ‘[It] has a warmth and intensity to match…du Pré’s classic EMI recording.’

Elgar Cello Concerto

Jacqueline du Pré vc BBC SO / Sir John Barbirolli 


Recorded live in Prague in 1967, little more than a year after her classic studio recording, du Pré clearly revels being in front of an audience. As Andrew Farach-Colton noted, ‘She digs into the opening solo with startling urgency…[and] finds a greater variety of mood in the score.’

Jacqueline du Pré A Celebration

Jacqueline du Pré vc with various artists 

Film director Christopher Nupen

(Allegro Films) 

Christopher Nupen’s three-hour tribute features two films plus a montage of images of du Pré and Barenboim accompanied by a recording of them playing the first movement of the Brahms E minor Cello Sonata. To conclude is an interview with du Pré, shot in 1980, which, as Andrew Farach-Colton wrote, ‘is all the more potent for being entirely free of self-pity’.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Gramophone.

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