du Pré, Jacqueline (1945–1987)

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du Pré, Jacqueline (1945–1987)

English cellist, one of the most talented of the 20th century, who ranks with Pablo Casals, Guilhermina Suggia, and Mstislav Rostropovich, and is especially known for her interpretations of the works of Sir Edward Elgar. Name variations: Du Pre. Pronunciation: Du-PRAY. Born on January 26, 1945, in Oxford, England; died on October 20, 1987, in London, of multiple sclerosis; daughter of Derek du Pré (an accountant) and Iris (Greep) du Pré (a pianist and composer); sister of Hilary du Pré (a flutist) and Piers du Pré (a clarinetist); entered Herbert Wallen's Cello School in London at age six; began studying with William Pleeth at age ten; studied with Pablo Casals and then with Mstislav Rostropovich; married Daniel Barenboim (a pianist and conductor), on June 15, 1967; no children.

Became interested in cello at age four (1949); won the Suggia Cello Award (1956); performed for BBC television at age 12 (1957); won Guildhall's Gold Medal as well as the Queen's Prize at age 15 (1960); made her concert debut at Wigmore Hall in London at age 16 (1961); continued to concertize, establishing a worldwide reputation; married and converted to Judaism in Jerusalem (1967); performed often in concert with husband but began to suffer from major symptoms of multiple sclerosis in her late 20s; disease destroyed her career and eventually took her life at age 42 (1987).

Night after night, from January to May 1966, two cellists were hard at work in Moscow. One was the famous Russian musician Mstislav Rostropovich; the other was a tall, long-haired blonde Englishwoman. Despite the girl's youth and because of her great talent, Rostropovich viewed her almost as his equal and had agreed to fit her lessons into his busy schedule. It wasn't unusual for the two to begin as late as 10:30 pm. Week by week, the great Russian performer watched the power of the young woman's playing grow. She was "the most natural player that I have ever seen, in all my life," he said later. "[H]er thoughts flowed straight from mind to cello without pause." At only 21, Jacqueline du Pré was already recognized as one of the world's finest cellists.

She was born in Oxford, England, on January 26, 1945. Her father Derek was an accountant who played the piano and accordion for entertainment. His family came from the Channel Islands off England's south coast, which had been home to the du Prés since William the Conqueror invaded Britain in 1066. Jacqueline's mother was Iris Greep , a fine pianist and a composer who had studied at the Royal Academy in London. The Greeps were dockers from Devon, perhaps of Dutch extraction. Jacqueline was the second of three children; her older sister Hilary du Pré was a flutist and her younger brother Piers played the clarinet.

Jacqueline was still an infant when her mother noticed that she listened carefully to her lullabies. At age four, after hearing a cello played on "The Children's Hour," a BBC-radio program, she told her mother she wanted the instrument that "made that noise." On her fifth birthday, her parents gave her a three-quarter cello, which was still large enough to make it difficult for the child to reach the high notes. Her mother composed little tunes, with illustrated lyrics about elves and witches, and featuring notes slightly beyond Jacqueline's reach in order to stretch her technical skills. At age six, she became a student at Herbert Wallen's Cello School in London, where she was provided with a smaller cello. At age seven, she made her first public appearance, performing Schubert's Moments Musicales. The young girl was fiercely serious about music. One day as she began to tune her cello, she asked her uncle, Wilfrid du Pré, to play a middle C on the piano. Wilfrid, thinking his niece would not know the difference, simply struck the first note that came to hand. An insulted Jacqueline pitched a sizeable fit for which she later apologized.

To ask what more she might have done is sad and pointless; it is like asking how much more a young Schubert might have composed had he lived another five years. There is no end to talent like this.

—William Pleeth

The life of Jacqueline du Pré was centered around music. She often said that until age 17 the cello was her best friend. At age ten, she began to study with William Pleeth, whom she called her "cello daddy"; at age 11, she won the Suggia Cello Award, an important international prize that paid her tuition fees at the Guildhall School of Music for the next five years. At age 12, she was invited to perform on BBC television, and at 15 she won Guildhall's Gold Medal as well as the Queen's Prize for British instrumentalists under 30. She went to Zermatt, Switzerland, to attend classes with the great master of the cello, Pablo Casals, and commented later that his classes were "like getting a punch in the stomach" because Casals set down dogmatic rules for playing. At age 16, she made her concert debut at Wigmore Hall in London. Although she was shy, du Pré loved performing. Unlike some nervous performers, she was jubilant on stage. About this time, a gift from an anonymous donor made it possible for her to acquire a Stradivarius cello dated 1673; in 1964, she was able to acquire a second Stradivarius, the famous Davidov cello, dated 1712.

It is rarely possible for a young genius to live a normal life, but du Pré briefly enjoyed a relatively youthful period between her studies and her ascent to international stardom. She lived on her own, dated, and traveled. One night, returning from rehearsal with her friend, Hugh Maguire, she felt extremely animated and longed to avoid the solitude of her Holland Park apartment. Maguire invited her to come home with him. She stayed six months. Hugh Maguire's home was a veritable musical conservatory, where many musicians, almost all male, dropped by and often performed impromptu chamber music concerts. Many were attracted to the tall blonde cellist, and one, conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, would become her husband. Maguire remembered times when Jackie, full of natural gaiety and high spirits, would play her cello while lying on her bed roaring with laughter.

Like most great cellists, du Pré created an almost physical bond between herself and her instrument. Throwing herself into her performance, she instantly communicated her delight in the music she was playing, and her style was impassioned and grainy. She also had a marvelous memory, which contributed to the speed of her development. Her main problem was technique. She had a freak left hand, on which the first and index fingers were the same length, meaning that she was unable to finger the strings conventionally. But her warmblooded, romantic approach made her a worldwide favorite on concert stages.

In time, du Pré became most famous for her performances of the music of Sir Edward Elgar, particularly his Cello Concerto. Except for the widely known Pomp and Circumstance Marches, Elgar's music had been infrequently performed since his death in 1934. In 1965, music critic Edward Greenfield wrote of one of du Pré's performances, "Not since Master Yehudi Menuhin recorded Elgar's Violin Concerto with the composer has a young artist played with such profound dedication on record as Jacqueline du Pré."

De Pré converted to Judaism and married Daniel Barenboim in Jerusalem, on June 15, 1967, a year after their first meeting. Three days later, the Six Day War broke out in the Middle East, and the newlyweds soon went on a concert tour of North America with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to raise funds for the Israeli cause. When they were not on tour, the couple lived in a small apartment in London near Baker Street, and du Pré and Barenboim often gave joint concerts. When asked what it was like to accompany his wife on the piano, Barenboim once replied, "Difficult. It doesn't dawn on her sometimes that we mortals have difficulties in following her."

When they were not on tour, du Pré enjoyed cooking the spicy food her husband liked. Unlike Barenboim, who had grown up in the bright Israeli sun, she loved swimming and walking in the rainy countryside. The young couple shared a large circle of musician friends, including Artur Rubinstein, Zubin and Nancy Mehta , Itzhak and Toby Perlman , Vladimir Askenazy, Pinchas and Eugenia Zukerman , and Christopher and Diana Nupen . "Whenever I think about Jacqueline du Pré," said Itzhak Perlman, "I always imagine a shooting star shining brightly in the night for an instant and then disappearing. Her career, which lasted a mere ten years, revealed to the public that she was indeed a shining star."

No one knows when du Pré first sensed that something was wrong. Several incidents—sudden unexplained falls, memory lapses, extreme fatigue, disorientation—were later remembered. She and her husband were widely sought in concert halls throughout the world, and her schedule was grueling. While playing had once been a welcome release, persistent fatigue had now begun to make performing a source of anxiety. In its early stages, multiple sclerosis is extremely difficult to diagnose, and many reasons were given for the cellist's new difficulties—exhaustion, psychological problems, even stage fright. She began seeing a therapist. Especially baffling was the fact that her symptoms came and went. At times, her playing was unsurpassed, but it could also deteriorate suddenly, sometimes in the middle of a performance.

By 1970, although her commitments were greater than ever, du Pré found her strength and endurance dwindling even further and thought she was losing her mind. For six months, she stopped playing, then picked up her cello again that December; it was as if she had never stopped playing. She began to make recordings, of Chopin's Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 and a transcription of Franck's Violin Sonata in

A, then again stopped playing. After signs of improvement, she began to perform again in concert, but her playing now became increasingly erratic. On January 25, 1973, she was performing the Brahms Double Concerto under the direction of her husband at Philharmonic Hall in New York when all sensation in her fingers went dead. She could not feel the strings of her cello.

When the diagnosis was multiple sclerosis, du Pré was emotionally unprepared for what followed. Relieved at first to learn that her symptoms were physical and not psychological, she discovered in time just how devastating the disease can be. She proved to be among the 15% of MS patients whose bodies are ultimately destroyed by the crippling condition. Losing control of her fingers and then of her body, she was confined to a wheelchair and then to bed. But her interest in music remained as acute as ever, and for a time she was able to teach master classes. Since she could no longer play, she whistled the musical parts and explained the fingering to her students.

Surrounded by friends, she built a semblance of a life, hosting dinner parties and attending concerts in a wheelchair, beautifully dressed in evening clothes and maintaining her sunny disposition. As the years passed, however, it became harder and harder for her to speak. Robert Anderson said that for a period of time they spoke French together, because the sounds were easier for her to articulate. As the disease progressed, her eyesight also began to fail.

Locked out of the world of music, du Pré gradually grew apart from her husband. Barenboim saw that du Pré had every comfort and made regular visits to see her, but, since she did not want his musical career as well as hers to be sacrificed to the disease, he continued his concert tours. He also established a life with Helena Bachkirev , a Russian pianist who became the mother of his two children. Still, he was frequently at his wife's bedside as the bond between these two musicians was never broken.

On October 20, 1987, Jacqueline du Pré died in London at age 42 and was laid to rest at the Golders Green Jewish Cemetery. A few months later, a Thanksgiving Ceremony was held in her memory, attended by Charles, prince of Wales and Katherine (Worsley) , duchess of Kent. Hundreds gathered to hear Barenboim perform Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 20 in B flat Major and the English Chamber Orchestra played Elgar's Serenade for Strings Opus 20 in E minor. Although she had not appeared on a concert stage for more than 14 years, du Pré had left the world with a wealth of sound. Year after year, recordings of her performances are re-released, allowing new generations of music lovers to enjoy her extraordinary talent.

In 1999, the controversial film Hilary and Jackie was released, based on Piers and Hilary du Pré's book, A Genius in the Family. The movie starred Emily Watson as Jacqueline du Pré and Rachel Griffiths as Hilary (both actresses received Academy Award nominations for their performance).


"Du Pré show," in London Times. January 7, 1988, p. 3.

Dyer, Richard, "Jacqueline du Pré's tragic story," in Boston Globe. May 28, 1990, p. 33.

Easton, Carol. Jacqueline du Pré: A Life. NY: Summit, 1989.

Greenfield, Edward. "Joyful Memories of Jacqueline," in Manchester Guardian. June 9, 1989, p. 32.

James, Brian. "She never lost patience. She permitted herself a few tears," in London Times. October 21, 1987, p. 20.

——. "A Silent Farewell to a Cellist," in London Times. October 22, 1987, p. 2.

McLellan, Joseph. "Making a Case for Laser Disc, Sight and Sound," in Washington Post. May 26, 1991, sec G., p. 1.

Murdin, Lynda. "Simple service for cellist," in London Times. October 21, 1987, p. 2.

Oulton, Charles. "Family Anger at du Pré Book," in Sunday Times. March 20, 1988, p. A5.

Potter, Tully. "The Recordings of Jacqueline du Pré," in The Strad. Vol. 99, no. 1174. February 1988, pp. 134–135.

"Remembering Jacqueline du Pré," in The Strad. Vol. 99, no. 1174. February 1988, pp. 126–134.

Shawe-Taylor, Desmond. "Joyous Legacy of a Tragic Prodigy," in Sunday Times. October 25, 1987, p. 63.

"Thanksgiving Ceremony: Dr. Jacqueline du Pré," in London Times. January 27, 1988, p. 14.

Wordsworth, William. Jacqueline du Pré. Impressions. NY: Vanguard, 1983.

suggested reading:

Wilson, Elizabeth. Jacqueline du Pre: Her Life, Her Music, Her Legend. Arcade, 1999.

related media:

Hilary and Jackie (film), starring Emily Watson as Jacqueline du Pré and Rachel Griffiths as Hilary du Pré, directed by Anand Tucker, screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the book by Piers and Hilary du Pré, A Genius in the Family, 1999.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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du Pré, Jacqueline (1945–1987)

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