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Jacqueline du Pré – a terrible premonition

On what would have been the 71th birthday of Jacqueline du Pré, the words of János Starker sound a provocative warning

Cellist Jacqueline du Pre

Jacqueline du Pré was born 26th January, 1945 and died on 19th October 1987. She was a natural talent who burned very brightly indeed, all too briefly. She came to epitomise both the joy and optimism of a golden era of music making in the 1960s, and then the searing tragedy of human fragility and the transience of life. Of course we are left with wonderful recordings, but pity any cellist – whether female or male, British or otherwise, who ever performs the Elgar Cello Concerto.

I once interviewed the great Hungarian cellist and pedagogue János Starker and asked him about her. I was surprised by his response:

‘The first time I heard her I was sitting in a car listening to the radio. I didn’t know who was playing the Elgar, but I said to the driver, “Whoever this person is isn’t going to live very long.” After I made this statement somewhere all her friends and colleagues were very angry with me but it was a factual statement, because if someone exerts this kind of intensity consistently they will destroy their nervous system. I was saddened when she was struck with the sickness. She was an outstandingly effective and dedicated performer, but I have a strong belief that whoever plays with this kind of intensity cannot last long. Exerting unbroken intensity can be appealing to the public. It was and she was a successful performer, but in my mind you’re supposed to “play” music – you’re not supposed to work. In my life I’ve tried to use as little energy as needed in order to get the message across through a masterpiece. I always say you have to approach the instrument with all the power available, of which use as little as necessary. My example was Jascha Heifetz.’

I’m not sure neurologists would agree with his diagnosis of the tragic onset of multiple sclerosis, but his views on effective playing certainly bear some weight, especially when you see the ease with which he performed.

Photo of du Pré: Allegro Films

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