Cellist Jacqueline du Pré was a musical meteor. She was born in Oxford, England, in 1945, asked for a cello at the age of four, and made her Wigmore Hall debut at the age of sixteen. When she was twenty, she recorded the Elgar cello concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir John Barbirolli. It became one of the most famous recorded performances in classical music history.
Tragically, in her late twenties, du Pré began losing sensitivity in her hands, making playing difficult, then impossible. She gave what became her final concerts in early 1973, shortly after her twenty-eighth birthday. Later that same year, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She was forced to step back from a performing career but continued working as a teacher. She died at the age of 42.
Although her career was brief, she made many recordings. Here are her most popular recordings on Youtube as of early 2023: a fabulous introduction to the art of the unforgettable Jacqueline du Pré.
In reverse order of view numbers…
5. Jacqueline du Pré and Barenboim
On Christmas Eve 1966, the 21-year-old Jacqueline du Pré met the 25-year-old pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. “We sat down and made music together — and from then on things developed very fast,” she told Gramophone Magazine. Before the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, which occurred in June of that year, du Pré and Barenboim flew to Israel. She converted to Judaism and they were married at the Western Wall on 15 June 1967.
During their partnership, documentarian Christopher Nupen captured film footage of them casually preparing for a recording session. This particular three-minute clip comes from that footage, and it’s magnetic. First she plays the piano (surprisingly well!) while he looks on adoringly. The engineer interrupts, saying he’s ready. She picks up the cello, he sits down at the piano, and then they test sound levels. Since they’re in the recording studio, they’re able to face one another instead of facing out, heightening the sense of intimate musical communication and conversation. When the engineer has done his work, du Pré sets her cello down and hops off her podium, clearly ready to take on the world.
4. Jacqueline du Pré Plays Elgar’s Cello Concerto
2 million views
In this 1967 performance, du Pré soloed with the London Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim conducting. She is confident yet vulnerable – grounded yet transcendent – ultra-precise and yet incredibly free. The initial lead-up to the first big orchestral tutti is one of the most gripping three minutes in the cello repertoire. By the time the tutti hits, it becomes difficult to even breathe: it sounds as if she’s screaming through her cello.
3. Jacqueline du Pré Plays Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 1
2.2 million views
Her third most popular performance on Youtube is yet another collaboration with Daniel Barenboim, this time as pianist and chamber music partner as they take on Brahms’s achingly bittersweet first cello sonata in E-minor.
One of the most breathtaking moments in the performance is in the middle of the first movement at 6:49, when du Pré restates the opening theme in a whisper. It’s so quiet and so controlled; it feels as if you can hear individual hairs on her bow making the string sound. Barenboim matches her in quiet, supportive intensity.
2. Jacqueline du Pré Plays Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (Audio)
3 million views
The second most popular du Pré performance on Youtube is audio of her Dvořák cello concerto, featuring Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony. Although she is most famous for her performance of the Elgar concerto, her Dvořák is also a classic, and for good reason. Listen to her warm bold sound, the breathtaking dynamic changes, and the sheer heart wrenching beauty.
There are so many great moments here, but her treatment of the slow section toward the end of the concerto is otherworldly. Dvořák meant this to be a tribute to his beloved sister-in-law, who he learned was dying as he composed the concerto. He wrote that the solo cello part should close with a diminuendo “like a breath … then there is a crescendo, and the last measures are taken up by the orchestra, ending stormily. That was my idea, and from it I cannot recede.” It’s an unconventional structure, and it takes a confident cellist to pull off convincingly. Of course du Pré does.
And finally…the most popular Jacqueline du Pré performance on Youtube is…
1. Jacqueline du Pré Plays Dvořák’s Cello Concerto (Video)
It’s another performance of the Dvořák concerto under Barenboim, but this time the circumstances were very different from the Chicago recording.
This is a live performance dating from September 1968, just days after Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia, seeking to halt liberalization efforts there that might undermine the Communist Party. Of course this gave Barenboim and du Pré’s choice of repertoire an additional layer of meaning, since Dvořák was such an important figure in celebrating and nurturing Czech cultural identity. They put the concert together in five days, and received death threats for doing so.
At 29:37, a sharp pop echoes through the concert hall – but fortunately it’s only a string breaking. The soloist calmly announces to the audience, “Two minutes, please, while I change my string” and graciously sweeps offstage. She returns at 31:30, two minutes exactly, and continues on, cool as a cucumber.
This video was apparently lost for many years and rediscovered relatively recently. What a gift to all music lovers. It’s fitting that this is her most popular performance, proving as it does not only that Jacqueline du Pré was a fabulous cellist and performer, but an engaged citizen of the world.
For more of the best in classical music, sign up for our E-Newsletter