How Jacqueline du Pré Sparked a Cello Explosion

50 years after her London debut, EMI Reissues her complete recorded works—friends and colleagues marvel at her legacy.
 by Laurence Vittes

It’s easy to feel sorry for the late cellist Jacqueline du Pré—after all, she was struck down at the height of her career by multiple sclerosis. But then you miss the point. Disregard everything you’ve ever heard about her being a saint or an angel, which she would have been the first to dispute. And set aside the portrayal of du Pré as a devilishly difficult ingenue as depicted in her sister Hilary’s controversial book, A Genius in the Family, and Anand Tucker’s prickly 1998 film adaptation Hilary and Jackie. Instead, start from this simple point: she was a cello-playing force of nature with few musical inhibitions, who also was very pretty, and very, very smart.

EMI recently reissued du Pré’s complete recordings. And earlier this year, she was voted into the first Gramophone Hall of Fame. Twenty-five years after her tragic, untimely death in 1987, at age 42, du Pré continues to capture the admiration—and imagination—of friends, colleagues, and a new generation of fans and followers. “I listened to and watched every bit of footage on her before I was 10 years old,” cellist and 2011 MacArthur Fellow Alisa Weilerstein, 29, says.

The Dutch cellist Jan Vogler, known for his own energetic performances, is inspired by du Pré’s “energy and willingness to invest herself beyond comfort and secure control. She inspired me to take risks,” he says. “I felt ashamed when I was once not totally exhausted after a concert. It seemed that music deserved and required this input and anything less seemed to be cheating!”

In the 1960s, du Pré rose meteorically to fame along with the Beatles—her crowd was as much rock ’n’ roll as classical music. Indeed, she had been groomed for stardom by the entire British musical establishment. Born in Oxford, England, in 1945, she seemed destined for greatness. Legend has it that at age four du Pré heard a cello on the radio and asked her mother for one. A year later, Sir John Barbirolli, the great English conductor and cellist, heard du Pré play and said, “This is it!”

She started studying with the renowned cellist William Pleeth at age ten, won the Gold Medal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama at 15, and studied with Pablo Casals at a master class held in Zermatt, Switzerland, before being taught by both Paul Tortelier and Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1961, she made her formal debut at the age of 16 at London’s Wigmore Hall. She followed that the next year with her debut at the Royal Festival Hall playing the Elgar Cello Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Schwarz. She soon became an international soloist.

Offstage, she was outgoing, convivial, and irreverent. Onstage, she was supremely confident and concentrated, admired for her seemingly effortless technique, and adored for the intense emotional connection she made with her audiences.

The BBC high brass decided to make her their franchise player and enlisted her to record her entire repertoire—from Haydn to Schumann, from soup to nuts, and above all, the signature Elgar Cello Concerto—for British flagship label EMI.

After a 1965 performance of the Elgar work, New York Times reviewer Raymond Ericson wrote that “Miss du Pré and the concerto seemed made for each other, because her playing was so completely imbued with the romantic spirit. Her tone was sizable and beautifully burnished. Her technique was virtually flawless, whether she was playing the sweeping chords that open the concerto, sustaining a ravishing pianissimo tone, or keeping the fast repeated note figures in the scherzo going at an even pace.”

But the defining moment in du Pré’s career came in 1966 at a New Year’s Eve party in London when she and the handsome, gifted Argentine pianist Daniel Barenboim met over Brahms’ F major Sonata and fell irretrievably in love. Six months later, she converted to Judaisim and the couple married at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

He has written that she was “an extremely kind person who could be quite hard in her judgment of other musicians when it concerned lack of commitment or intensity, or what was considered lack of honesty. And anyone who was not willing to give all of himself was a dishonest person.”

The first recordings the couple made together in 1967 were the Haydn C major and Boccherini cello concertos. “She had a capacity to imagine sound such as I never met in any other musician,” Barenboim has written. “She was really a child of nature—a musician of nature with an unerring instinct.”

The duo was a hit.

The effect on the British public of this impossibly romantic, classical-music soap opera was total—the relationship turned the two stars into the golden couple of the musical world of their day. When doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis in 1972, a year after she had begun to lose feeling in her fingers at age 26, the public’s devastation and sorrow ran deep.

Her last public concerts took place in New York in February 1973, completing three of four scheduled performances of the Brahms Double Concerto with Pinchas Zukerman and Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.

Isaac Stern stepped in to cover that last cancelled concert, performing Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

“My hands no longer worked,” she said in a 1978 interview. “I simply couldn’t feel the strings.”


Her professional decline was rapid: du Pré had a severe case of MS, and although she remained a revered figure and continued teaching for years from her wheelchair, she could no longer perform. She remained in London while Barenboim settled in Paris to conduct. She grew increasingly frustrated and angry as she became wracked with pain, lost control of her speech and motor skills, and became almost totally dependent on others for her care. Although she relied heavily on visitors for her emotional survival, many of her colleagues were uncomfortable seeing her in such a deteriorating state.

Yet, despite her illness, du Pré remained devoted to music and took great comfort from it. “I had to learn to reconstruct my life,” she said in 1978, according to theNew York Times. “But I have found a great deal to do. I go to concerts and see my friends. And the music is still alive in my head.”

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, in conjunction with the Jacqueline du Pré Research Fund, presented several benefit concerts for du Pré at Carnegie Hall. Participants included violinist Pinchas Zukerman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Eugene Istomin, and several others. In his review in the New York Times of a 1980 benefit concert, John Rockwell wrote: “The consistently high quality of these particular benefits can be traced to the close professional and social circle in which Miss du Pré and her husband move. They know the best, and the best play at their benefits.”

In 1981, the Broadway play “Duet for One,” by Tom Kempinski and starring Anne Bancroft and Max von Sydow, told du Pré’s story.

In her obituary, the Times noted that throughout her illness, du Pré remained sanguine about the future. “Nobody knows if I’ll ever regain mobility,” she had said in 1978. “It could be that next week I’ll find myself walking down the road. I believe in realistic optimism, but not wishful thinking.”

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of her public London debut with the Elgar concerto, for which she received a special 1977 BRIT Award for best classical soloist album of the previous 25 years, EMI has reissued a newly packaged 17-CD box set of her complete recordings, with all the concertos, sonatas, and chamber music, from the early glimpses of her talent in bloom to her most mature work.

There is just one previously unreleased track: Bach’s Adagio and Allegro, BWV 1028.

“She did not know what it was to have technical difficulties, nor what it meant to play safe,” Barenboim writes of du Pré in his 1991 autobiography, A Life in Music. “There was a sensation of pure abandon when she played and it was that quality that endeared her to her colleagues and to her audience. There was something in her playing that was so completely and inevitably right—as far as tempo and dynamics were concerned. She played with great rubato, with great freedom, but it was so convincing that you felt like a mere mortal faced with somebody who possessed some kind of ethereal dimension.

“Musically speaking, she was something of a rebel—she had her own brand of obstinacy. There was something deep inside her personality or her charisma, but the intensity of her feeling that made you wonder if there could be, after all, some valid reason for changing the printed score! With other musicians, one would have felt that such a reaction was willful or capricious, but there was nothing willful or capricious about Jacqueline’s music making.”

No wonder, her larger-than-life persona casts a shadow even on today’s concert stages.

With each passing year, her musical presence becomes bigger than the jet-set superstars she once traveled with. Her influence has been, as the British cellist and pedagogue Colin Carr puts it, “enormous.”

That sentiment is echoed by English cellist Natalie Clein. “When I was 10, she was the first and only female cellist I had heard of,” Clein says, “a strong, charismatic woman with a sense of joy in her playing.”

Cypress String Quartet cellist Jennifer Kloetzel admits that “being a blond female cellist growing up at a certain time, I fell in love with Jackie the rock-star legend.”

And equally with the way du Pré made music.

“She got it inside it and devoured it,” Kloetzel says.


Ask Vogler to describe du Pré’s performance style and he notes that “she was like a hurricane on the cello, very different from the pure power of Rostropovich. Her playing was positive and enthusiastic—it was an authentic expression of the young postwar generation in the West.”

Du Pré’s former teacher William Pleeth remains the cellist’s most important influence, a virtuoso who morphed into a teacher whose focus on freedom and spontaneity aligned with du Pré’s inner emotional core. Her ability to immediately adapt to whatever changes and adjustments she might be making in tempo or phrasing and still maintain the connection she had with the musical experience was a theme he expressed over and again. Du Pré was so well prepared by Pleeth that by the time she arrived in Moscow in 1966 and played Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante for Rostropovich, the master quickly began treating the student as an equal.

“The rapport between Jackie and Rostropovich,” the Russian-Armenian cellist Karine Georgian, a longtime student of Rostropovich, says, “was like electricity. Whenever she would begin to play over the top, Rostropovich would suggest a correction in her conceptual thinking, which she would immediately accept and incorporate without losing either her expressivity or her connection with the musical line and experience for even one beat.”

Georgian will “never, never forget” du Pré playing the beginning of the Franck Sonata, noting that “her urge to express what she felt about it could be quite forceful. Her use of rubato, rhythm, and timing in the Franck was something very rare, something you cannot teach. The expressivity came not just from the bow, but from the left hand as well and every finger on the fingerboard.”

The master classes that du Pré gave after she was forced by multiple sclerosis to stop playing the cello represent a voluminous and complex treasure trove of resources for cellists and other musicians. While she may have been an incandescent musical force of nature—comparable, some say, to the Argentine pianist Martha Argerich—du Pré brought to her teaching what British cellist and former Pleeth student Paul Watkins, newly appointed to the Emerson String Quartet, calls “a huge intellectual and imaginative grasp.”

During Robert Cohen’s studies with du Pré, she passed to him “her powerful belief that not a moment, not a millisecond of the music can be overlooked or undervalued. This was examined in microscopic detail. Creating and treasuring every sound produced from the cello was a life force for her and a focus I incorporated in my playing—as every good teacher desires—in my own way.”

Studying with du Pré was an intense experience, and not always a pleasant one. The Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen, who studied with du Pré at age 18, says that the fact that “playing through students was the only way left of making music for her made the relationship almost unbearably difficult to deal with. Playing in front of her, trying desperately to play just like her and failing miserably, I felt more and more at a dead end.

“After maybe ten lessons, I had to ask her if I could go on visiting her without the cello.”

Another master-class student of hers, Torleif Thedéen, also felt that du Pré “wanted to play through me—use this fingering, make this slide there, get closer to the bridge.”

For the then 18-year-old Thedéen, it was a “very heavy responsibility.”


And these days, she is still teaching us: watching video footage of du Pré performing is a remarkable learning experience, her expressivity flowing from both the bow and the left hand, and from her physical freedom and movement.

The leading edge of du Pré’s dominance will always be her relationship with Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. It came at a time when the stereo format was breaking sales records, and the Beatles were breaking them, too. And classical music was coming along for the ride. Ironically, du Pré, with her larger-than-life embrace, significantly redefined the character of the music to such an extent that the version recorded by Elgar himself with Beatrice Harrison, the concerto’s early champion, has become unrecognizable. Notably, the wild fury of Harrison’s accelerando in m. 12 of the second movement cadenza has been lost in favor of a studied declamation that the composer might well have deplored.

“The fact that many cellists have taken her wonderful and unique performance of the Elgar Concerto as gospel, wanting to copy different aspects of it,” Anssi Karttunen cautions, “has made a caricature of the piece. If one wants proof of that, all one needs to do is to listen to Beatrice Harrison’s recording with Elgar conducting, from 1928, and compare it to any performance from the last 20 years [post du Pré]. It’s hard to believe that one is listening to the same piece.”

The current generation of star cellists doesn’t shy away from the du Pré effect. For instance, Clein calls the first generation after du Pré “a creative burst, a cello population explosion, with them, in turn, becoming great teachers themselves as well as players.” She feels that this is how du Pré’s legacy is being carried on.

Cohen believes that du Pré’s legacy lies in the extraordinary emotional energy she transmitted to her audience. “Even now,” he says, “people talk to me in words of extraordinary elation about the unforgettable experience of hearing her play, perhaps even 30 years ago. This is how Jackie’s legacy really lives on, and in the musicians who are inspired by her playing. ”

For Karttunen, neither the instrument, the technique, nor the particular music du Pré played sum up her tale: “The point was that she told a story of her life with everything she did with the cello and laid it out in front of us in total sincerity,” he says. “There are only a few artists every century for which everything around them becomes material for their own story. I think music and the cello were the perfect, and only, ways she had of truly expressing herself.”

What Jacqueline du Pre Played

Jacqueline du Pré played several instruments in her youth, including an early 1673 Stradivari (more on that in a moment), a Guarneri, a Ruggieri, and a Tecchler. When du Pré was 16, her godmother Ismena Holland purchased, for $90,000, the 1712 “Davidoff” (or “Davydov”) Stradivari. It is almost identical to the “Duport” Strad, built on Strad’s highly coveted B Form. Most of du Pré’s recordings from 1965–68 reportedly were made on the Davidoff. She eventually became disillusioned with the instrument, which she said was overly sensitive to weather changes, and switched to a 1970 Peresson that was a gift from Barenboim. Du Pré’s 1970 Peresson cello is on loan to cellist Kyril Zlotnikov of the Jerusalem Quartet.

In 1988, the Vuitton Foundation purchased the Davidoff cello for just over £1 million and made it available on loan to Yo-Yo Ma, who still uses it today as one of his two main instruments. In an interview with du Pré biographer Elizabeth Wilson, Yo-Yo Ma said: “Jackie’s unbridled dark qualities went against the ‘Davydov.’ You have to coax the instrument. The more you attack it, the less it returns.”

In 1984, Lynn Harrell purchased the aforementioned 1673 Strad cello. In 2004, he left the instrument in a New York City taxi. The cab driver, Mohamed Ibrahim, returned the cello unharmed. Two years later, it was sold to Russian cellist Nina Kotova, who now owns it (though Harrell reportedly has taken legal steps to rename the instrument the “du Pré” Stradivari).

—Greg Cahill