Feature: Jacqueline du Pré

Jacqueline du Pre (cover left)

Hardcover – 480 pages (April 1999)
Arcade Publishing ISBN 155970490X
A Genius in the Family: An Intimate Memoir of Jacquline du Pré (UK title; cover below)
Hilary and Jackie (US title; cover below)

by David Chew   “Few people knew of the greatness she achieved then, of the nobility and inner development as she discovered new strength and vision within herself even as her body became her prison. It is a comforting half-true legend about multiple sclerosis, that the sufferer is enveloped by a quiet serenity and happiness which copes with the illness. But we cannot deny the frustration, the bitterness, the enormous anger which could and did erupt during her log night of suffering. It was balanced by her humour, by her compassionate work for fellow sufferers and her continuing joy for life. Jackie had a unique place in our lives because she belonged to that rare group of individuals who blessed the world.”

– Rabbi Friedlander, Eulogy for Jacquline du Pré

A celebrated cellist who made the Elgar Cello Concerto famous beyond words, Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987) has influenced and inspired the world over by her life and contributions to the classical genre of music.

Admittedly, there are a number of biographies and accounts of Jackie’s life. I have only chosen these two biographies for the following reasons. Wilson’s biography of Jackie is one of her musical achievements, because Wilson was a close friends of Jackie, and she was actually ‘commissioned’ by Jackie’s husband to do this biography. The other one, was an obvious choice, being written by Jackie’s siblings, and was the basis for the movie, Jackie and Hilary.

Elizabeth Wilson was approached by Daniel Barenbiom (Jackie’s husband) in 1988 to write the cellist’s biography. Ten years later, a fully researched and highly detailed account of Jacqueline du Pré’s musical achievement was made available to the world. A fellow cellist and a good friend of Jackie for more than twenty years, Wilson’s chronicle is a very objective view of her lifetime’s achievements. She establishes Jackie’s experiences ‘in relation to the times she lived through’, and supplies the context and background of her accomplishments’. The major difference between this biography and that of the du Pré siblings, is that while Wilson concentrates on portraying Jackie as a musician in her own right, the du Pré siblings offered their sister as a human being, honest and fallible, without the aura of being a ‘legend’ that Wilson has suggested throughout her writings.

I particularly found her impartial tone helpful in maintaining the professional stature of Jackie, without gushing too much of her being an immortal unto her right. Wilson in doing so gave Jackie the right amount of dignity and respect. Unlike many biographers who build and overemphasise their friendship with the person whose life they are celebrating, Wilson actually mentions very little of herself and Jackie. An unprejudiced and somewhat detached tone permeates throughout the book, and Wilson does not capitalise on her relationship with Jackie in any way.

Ironically, Hilary and Piers du Pré’s version of Jackie’s life would not have come about had it not been for Elizabeth Wilson. Wilson had approached them to discuss Jackie’s life and had allocated them a chapter in the above-mentioned biography, but the siblings felt that one chapter was scarcely enough to ‘talk about’ their memories of their sister. Originally written by hand and starting off as “To my dearest mum…”, the memoir soon took longer than a letter to mum and become a heart-felt work of love by the two siblings in remembrance of Jacqueline.

Jackie’s talents and intuition were never doubted by anyone in the beginning and the memoirs and biographies show this is true to the very last letter. Hilary recalls how, even at age thirteen, Jackie – after being given the score of the Elgar concerto, could one and a half days later play the entire first movement and half of the second from memory, and brilliantly so. This stunned Bill Pleet, her ‘cello daddy’.

From the du Prés’ memoirs, we are given a more intimate view of Jackie’s life and passion. Of Jackie’s passionate playing which always involved excessive swaying, Pablo Casals once retorted, “Don’t you dare criticise this girl! Can’t you see her playing comes from the her heart and her movements are part of the whole?”

Included in the du Pré siblings’ memoir are clips of reviews, both good and bad ones, that Jackie received throughout her lifetime. The following extract is just one example.
“…she is divine. At twenty she inhabits the lofty world of the few supreme artists. As soon as she started playing this very quiet and very English work (the Elgar concerto) a rapt and unprecedented silence descended over the Carnegie Hall audience. Afterward, tears were to be seen in many eyes. “It restores your faith”, a man behind me muttered.”

– Bernard Jacobson, Music & Musicians
Both Hilary and Piers also show us very honest and revealing thoughts and comments throughout the memoirs. Since the focus of the entire family was on Jackie most of the time, it was needless to say that at some point or other, everyone would feel left out. The need to be recognised was very strong, and Hilary and Piers fell victim to this, even their father. Piers and his father found themselves increasingly isolated from the girls, as both felt left out of the music-making, though both were extremely proud of Jackie at all times.

Jackie’s love for Hilary’s husband is one sensitive issue discussed at lengths here. Hilary, being brutally honest, shares with us her feelings and emotions as the family struggled to cope with Jackie’s.

There is a tone of warmth and intimacy that cannot be replicated by any means. Those who have enjoyed the movie based on the book will be surprised. It is uncomparable and words cannot describe the difference in the experience of watching the film and reading the memoirs.

At the end of the book, the illness that eventually took Jackie’s life is discussed with in-depth references from medical experts. Perhaps this is one aspect that I feel, the movie has portrayed excellently. Viewing the film a second time, I felt that it did a great job in depicting Jackie’s sense of loss and misery in losing her ability to play the cello. One could vividly see life being literally drained out of du Pré’s hands.

LEFT: Jacqueline du Pré: The Concerto Collection, a 4-disc tribute featuring her recordings of works by Elgar, Dvorak, Haydn, Boccherini, Delius, Schumann, R.Strauss and more. Available on EMI CMS5 67341-2.

The entire memoir is a heartwarming and poignant remembrance of a sister they once had, and will always cherish. Accompanied by a very detailed discography that lists every available recording that has Jacqueline du Pré in it, readers will no doubt be persuaded to buy a number of them to accompany the touching and wildly unforgettable story of Jacqueline du Pré.

Zubin Mehta said it best when he was addressing an audience at a thanksgiving ceremony commemorating du Pré in 1988:

“I can’t continue to read what I’ve written. Everything I want to say can be told in this story. Recently, I was conducting the Elgar concerto in New York. Toward the end of the third movement, I just couldn’t conduct anymore. The cellist looked up and said, ‘You’re thinking of her, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes’, I replied. The thought of Jackie playing with me in London for the last time in 1973 completely overwhelmed me. At that point I knew I could never conduct the Elgar again. There was no one like Jackie and no one could replace her. There is nothing else I can say. There is nothing else to be said.”

Mehta never conducted the Elgar again.

a scene from the film

DAVID CHEW has finally fulfilled his dream of contributing to the immortalisation of Jackie.

880: 16.4.2001 David Chew

Paperback – 350 pages (November 1999)
Ballantine Books ISBN 0345432711

Film – ‘Hilary & Jackie’ the movie (starring Emily Watson & Rachel Griffiths)
Recordings – ‘Jacqueline du Pré: The Concerto Collection’ EMI CMS5 67341-2

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