Jacqueline du Pré passed away quietly on 19 October 1987, aged 42. The world Jackie lived in may have passed into history, but in our media-manipulated times, what she represented may, if anything, be even more important.
Christopher Nupen met her when she was still in her teens. He and Bill Pleeth, her "cello Daddy", were holding her hands at the end.
Nupen’s first encounter with Jacqueline du Pré was quite surreal. One winter evening, he’d come home late to his flat in New Cavendish Street. The house was still, but a streetlight outside shone through the window. The glass was Victorian, so it had imperfections which refracted light onto the wall inside in strange, unworldly patterns. The radio had been left on, still playing in the darkness. "As I walked in", he said, "I saw those strange patterns on the wall and heard sounds the like of which I had never heard before. I didn’t know it then, but it was Jackie playing Bach in a live broadcast from Fenton House. I said "Wow!" I couldn’t put the electric lights on. I sat down and contemplated those magic patterns on the wall and listened to those magical sounds. At the end, the radio announced ‘That was a young cellist called Jacqueline du Pré’. It was 1961, January, I think, she was barely 16. Then, just a few weeks later she walked into that same flat!"
She’d come to his home because he shared it with John Williams, the guitarist. "She was about to make her first gramophone recording for EMI and they had had the idea of recording her accompanied by several different people, Gerald Moore on piano, Osian Ellis on harp, John Williams on guitar. So she’d come to our flat to rehearse with John. The minute she walked in the door – Boom! I saw this strange creature striding in like an Amazon! Jackie was a big girl, tall and solidly built. She had a huge, long stride and she held her cello high as she strode down the corridor. But, at the same time, I could see that she was tremendously shy. Of course she didn’t know John and she didn’t know me which might explain the shyness - but not the confidence. I thought to myself, ‘How is it possible for a girl to be simultaneously Amazonian and shy? I’ve never forgotten that impression, it was so striking."
"And it applied to her music also … I remember a rehearsal in the Royal Albert Hall where she introduced a tremendous glissando. They all stopped and the conductor said, ‘That’s a bit over the top". And Jackie said, ‘Yes, oh yes, of course!" and modified her playing accordingly. I couldn’t attend the concert, only the rehearsal, and asked later how it had gone. She smiled and said, ‘Well, I did it anyway, and it was SUMPTUOUS" As Nupen recounted this, his face lit up, and his voice warmed. It was almost as if Jackie was present, pronouncing the word "sumptuous" with delicious glee. "That was what Jackie was like", he continued.
"She was shy, she was reticent, she didn’t have a lot of faith in herself, but there was some inner dynamic in her, so that when she felt something was artistically right, you could not stop her with wild horses. It just came from the inside. And how powerfully it reached the audience! There must have been thousands of people there, and I expect that it reached all of them. It’s an amazing thing which you cannot explain in words. You can’t explain it but thank the heavens you ‘CAN’ film it while it’s happening!"
In the early 1960s Nupen worked in radio at the BBC. While making his first radio programme, a feature about the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, he met his first wife, Diana, secretary to Christopher Sykes. Huw Weldon heard the Siena programme and called Nupen at 9 o'clock the next morning to say that he should be in television, which was then in its infancy. Nupen claims to have learned just about all he knows from the Features Department writers in BBC radio and was reluctant to leave. In those early days, the Nupens were able to wander in and out of the studios at all hours of the night, even carrying tapes out to work on at home. He nevertheless bowed to Huw Weldon’s wishes and in 1966 made a television film with Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy when they appeared together for the first time playing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos with the English Chamber Orchestra. The film was shot in three days and edited in three weeks - no mean feat for the time. Barenboim and Nupen had been friends for some time and had made radio programmes together, Nupen sometimes accompanying Barenboim on tour and turning pages for him. Barenboim, ever the perfectionist, bought him a Savile Row suit so he’d look right on stage.
Despite having many friends in common, Barenboim and du Pré didn’t really connect until December 1966. Within minutes of meeting, they were playing Brahms together. "The effect on them both was like dynamite", Nupen recalls.
Months later, he was able to capture that extraordinary energy in the film Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto, where she plays her signature Elgar Concerto with Barenboim conducting.
If anything, the dynamic between Jackie and Pinchas Zukerman was even more electric, since they are both string players. "Zukerman tells amazing stories about the way Jackie communicated her intentions by something like telepathy", says Nupen. "They seldom put marks in the parts but Daniel being the pianist and conductor often did. They would generally follow his markings, but sometimes they’d depart, and astonishingly, always in the same direction, without any pre-agreement or even any conscious intention. They just took off together and it worked. To this day Pinchas Zukerman is amazed at some of the things that happened."
In 1970 Nupen had heard the Barenboim, Zukerman, du Pré trio in an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s Ghost Trio in Oxford. When plans to film Segovia in St John’s Smith Square fell through at short notice, with the venue and the crew already booked, he telephoned Barenboim in Brighton and asked "What are you doing on Tuesday?" (12 May 1970). "They came up on the first train from Brighton that morning, and went back on the last train that same evening. In between we had shot The Ghost."
"We didn’t think that the filming had gone too well because of the shortage of preparation time", says Nupen, "So when we finished the editing and presented the film to them, I started by saying, ‘I’m sorry that the film cannot hold a candle to that wonderful performance in Oxford, but we have done the best we can with material that we shot at rather too short notice."
‘When the screening ended, before anybody else had said a word, Jackie suddenly said, ‘You’re wrong!’. I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about, so I said, ’What’s wrong – don’t you like it?’ Then she said, ‘You’re wrong because you said it was not as good as the concert in Oxford’. I said ‘Jackie, please! You were so busy on the stage that night that you don’t know what you did in the hearts and minds of those people in the audience, the film cannot be better’ And then she said something so deep-seeing that it took me years to understand it in full. She was teaching me my job. She said, ‘It’s better on the film because you can see what’s going on and it adds another dimension’.
"She was referring to the visual communication between the players which says so much about their artistic intentions and the "telepathy" that Pinchas spoke about but couldn’t explain in words. She had seen that it is there, captured on film and she saw it more clearly than any of the rest of us."
The same thing operated on a larger scale when Jackie, Daniel and Pinchas were joined by Itzhak Perlman and Zubin Mehta for The Trout. "We shot their rehearsals and the concert when they played Schubert’s Trout Quintet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in August 1969. The film shows them just as they were, inspired by the joy of making music together and it captures something about the experience of music making at its best. That film and the earlier Jacqueline du Pré and the Elgar Cello Concerto have brought huge numbers of people to music for the first time in their lives. As Jackie said of The Trout nine years after she stopped playing, "We were five friends, united by our youth and the pleasure we had in making music together. When we played the Trout, it would have evaporated as all concerts do, but Christopher Nupen saw a film in it and suddenly, there was a statement of our happiness forever and when I see the film it gives me back something of that feeling which will always be so precious to me".
In those carefree years, Nupen and his wife Diana used to travel with the Barenboims when they could. "We were all young and rather unthinking. We just tagged along and it all seemed like such a natural thing". The Barenboims moved in the upper echelons of the music world, far removed from anything Jackie had known as a girl. She’d grown up outdoorsy, rather gauche, in a wholesome English way. The cultural divide between their lives was hard to bridge, like the many contradictions in her life. She once told Nupen that she "wasn’t ready to move in these elevated circles", but he contradicted her because he could see how much people loved her. "She was so tremendously loveable and loved. It was no accident that she was taken on so warmly by sophisticated people". She mixed a lot with people whose first language wasn’t English, and the mid-European accent she sometimes used was probably a result. It was a way of blending in and helping others to feel at ease.
"She could adapt very easily to people but also transform them" says Nupen, "People felt elevated by her, and she changed them".
Tragically, soon after those films were made, Jackie’s health declined. In 1971, she withdrew from her punishing international touring schedule. She had withdrawn once before, when she was 15, though at that time it was, according to Nupen, associated with self-doubt. In the film, her father explains how she used the time positively to develop other interests, such as yoga and fencing. Then, in her own time, she decided to return to playing. "She was her own person", says Nupen, "but the disease overpowered her. I suppose she shouldn’t even have tried that Brahms Double Concerto in New York, but she did, that’s how courageous she was. She hoped it would be alright because she had always been so technically secure. She managed so well that some people thought it was just a lack of practice. She couldn’t feel anything in her fingers. It wasn’t a lack of confidence, it was physical, multiple sclerosis, affecting the nerves."
"Jackie was supremely adaptable", says Nupen, "but she did find touring a strain and it got to her. She wasn’t the kind of person who wanted to travel all the time and play concerts every day, other things also mattered to her, even though playing for people was the most important thing. She enjoyed company and teaching so she took on students, including Nupen’s wife, Diana, because she loved to communicate what the cello meant to her.
"Diana died of cancer in 1979, aged only 39. Jackie died in 1987 aged 42. They were two of the kindest, gentlest most constructive people I have ever known. How do you even try to understand that?" Nupen’s voice deepens, as he quotes Andrés Segovia who loved them both, ‘Ay, Christopher, my dear, I do not understand and never will, the cruelty of nature."
(photo credit Allegro Films)
Watch any of the many Jacqueline du Pré films by Allegro - they are pioneer works and a valuable archive created by people who knew Jackie well and loved here. To read the full interview look here