Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Jacqueline du Pré, one of the world’s most gifted cellists, at the tender age of 42.
To my eternal regret, I never heard her give a live performance, but we are lucky to have been left a host of recordings to appreciate both her musicianship and her zest for her craft. She was cut short in her prime at just 27 by multiple sclerosis. Although not worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence as her in the context of talent, I do, nevertheless, have a complete understanding of what it is like to be denied the sensations and muscle memory in my hands.
The same affliction has caused me to give up the piano, possibly to the relief of many. When I resumed lessons during my lunch hour some 25 years ago, my new teacher asked me to play something to give him an idea what level he was dealing with. I launched into the Pathétique sonata by Beethoven, and was at the point of opening my shoulders after the first page introduction to display my prowess in the Allegro, ma non troppo when he deftly touched me on the elbow with the observation “Mmm…you know, I think you could fool a lot of people you are really quite a good pianist.”
During her brief time at the top, du Pré made a remarkable impact. The memories of those who knew and worked with her tell of a natural, spontaneous gift, but as much, if not more, of a radiant personality that shone in every moment of her playing. Her recording of the famous Elgar Cello Concerto has been the benchmark against which every performance has been measured since.
So it would be plain silly to seek out the many other astonishing recordings just by way of demonstrating the breadth of her talent, and I make no apology for sharing this clip of the second movement from the Elgar. It’s only a few minutes, but you will be entranced by two things: the technique and performance, first; and, as the camera fades, a split second glimpse of that gorgeous smile.
In this recording, she is conducted by her husband, Daniel Barenboim. On the 28th and 29th October, Maestro Barenboim is bringing the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Royal Festival Hall in a concert to celebrate her life and raise money for research into MS. An auction of extraordinary lots can be found on http://www.stopmsappeal.com
Events like these, and the progress which has been made over the last 20 years, are grounds for real optimism – and inspiration for young musicians who can hope to avoid the struggles du Pré endured for fifteen years.
What a loss to music. Had she been ‘lucky’ enough to be diagnosed today, du Pré’s prognosis might have been very different. Watching and listening to this only compounds that loss.