Entertainment Music

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Du Pré: a dazzling life and stellar career, cut tragically short

George Hamilton

Ever since the day I was called up to play in the school orchestra, I've had a soft spot for the cello.

Even though I had a bowing technique that owed more to Robin Hood than Rostropovich, I could still appreciate the deep, sonorous notes that its strings could produce.

When I was a bit older, and earning my stripes in a bigger ensemble, the emergence of The Beatles was the talk of the schoolroom, but there was still something about playing the cello. For the star performer of the time was a pretty English blonde, not yet 20, by the name of Jacqueline du Pré.

Eleven months, virtually to the day, before 'Please Please Me' would become the Fab Four's first number one, Jacqueline burst on to her scene with a stunning performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto. As The Beatles would sing: "She was just 17 . . . and way beyond compare!"

The Elgar would become her signature tune, and her recording of it in 1965 became the standard against which all others would be measured. She was young, beautiful and sublimely talented. The musical world was at her feet.

She and the cello were made for each other. She'd first heard it on the radio as a child and told her mother, I want one of those.

She studied under the greats – Casals, Tortelier, and Rostropovich. Her playing was allied to an exuberant personality – chirpy, confident, irreverent.

On New Year's Eve 1966, she was teamed with the pianist Daniel Barenboim for a performance of the Brahms F major sonata. They fell instantly in love, and six months later they were married, a modern day Clara and Robert Schumann. They were the new British golden couple. Their performances and the recordings they made together delighted audiences across the globe.

The pressures and excitement were intense, and amidst it all, Jacqueline chose to ignore an increasing numbness in her fingers. It would have been natural to put it down to an intense schedule, an artist who wouldn't tolerate less than absolute commitment. Her doctors said it was stress.

But it was more than that. During rehearsals in New York for a performance with Leonard Bernstein, she told him she wouldn't be able to play. He coaxed her on stage, telling her she was just nervous.

But on the night, she couldn't open her cello case.

"I couldn't think what was happening," she told the Associated Press news agency at the time. "Walking on stage was like walking to the guillotine."

She had multiple sclerosis. Her brilliant career would end then and there, after just over a decade.

Jacqueline du Pré died on this day in 1987, at the age of just 42.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric FM from 10am each Saturday.


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