Elgar’s Cello Concerto, by Jacqueline du Pré

27 is a mythical number when it comes to rock stars. Brian Jones, Jim Morison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain all died at that age for one reason or another, usually related to substance abuse. However for me the saddest story related to the number 27 in the music world is not the actual death of a star, not a rock start certainly, and definitely not the result of drug abuse. It is the story of Jacqueline du Pré, one of the brightest classical music performers of all time, who rose to fame in the 60s and at the young age of 27 was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and was forced to give up her performance career.

Few musicians in a live setting show a pure and raw emotion as du Pré demonstrates in the video clip below, filmed in 1967 as part of a documentary about her. The film was directed by Christopher Nupen, who included in it the piece that made du Pré world famous and is now identified with her as much as with the music’s composer: Elgar’s cello concerto. The performance captured du Pré, then at the age of 22, with the New London Philharmonia Orchestra at Wood Lane studios before an invited audience, with husband-conductor Daniel Barenboim. The footage was completed in one take, with nothing edited or altered after the filming. Even the cutting of cameras was decided in real time while shooting the concert. It is one thing to listen to the first movement of the concerto, the Adagio, and feel the emotion that Jacqueline du Pré projects through the sounds. But when watching the performance you SEE the emotion, which is clearly not rehearsed, directed or planned.

Yehudi Menuhin said of the film: “I think that Jackie will have had a great influence, if only for that unbelievably beautiful film of her playing the Elgar, with Danny conducting. This is perhaps the most successful music film I know”. Mstislav Rostropovich, the legendary cellist who for a period of time taught du Pré, said in 2006: “I stayed away from the Elgar because I think of that piece as somewhat naïve. The theme from the slow movement sounds like it’s about first love, so I think it’s more appropriate for a young person. My pupil Jacqueline du Pré played it much better than I because I didn’t have the fresh perspective that a piece like that requires”.

However first love was not on Elgar’s mind when he wrote the piece in 1919, shortly after the carnage of World War I ended. If anything, the music he wrote was sort of a war requiem.  Compared to his other concerto, written ten years earlier for violin and a large orchestra, the cello concerto is much more subdued and introvert, and requires a much smaller orchestra to realize it. Elgar recorded the concerto with himself conducting in 1920, with cellist Beatrice Harrison, and again in 1928. However the piece did not become popular in the classical repertoire until Jacqueline du Pré recorded it in 1965 with conductor John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra for EMI. Barbirolli, 46 years du Pré’s elder, saw her emotional expression as sometimes excessive, but he was wise to understand the power it gives the performance: “Jackie is sometimes accused of excessive emotions… but I like it. When you are young, you should have an excess of everything. If you haven’t got an excess when you are young, what are you going to pare off as the years go by?”

Watching the video, the chemistry between Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim is inescapable. Nupen asked Barenboim to conduct the orchestra from memory, so that a music stand will not be necessary between conductor and soloist. The couple got married earlier in 1967 and clearly that chemistry is not just musical.

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