Jacqueline du Pre

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Jacqueline du Pré, one of the world’s most gifted cellists, at the tender age of 42.

To my eternal regret, I never heard her give a live performance, but we are lucky to have been left a host of recordings to appreciate both her musicianship and her zest for her craft. She was cut short in her prime at just 27 by multiple sclerosis. Although not worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence as her in the context of talent, I do, nevertheless, have a complete understanding of what it is like to be denied the sensations and muscle memory in my hands.

The same affliction has caused me to give up the piano, possibly to the relief of many. When I resumed lessons during my lunch hour some 25 years ago, my new teacher asked me to play something to give him an idea what level he was dealing with. I launched into the Pathétique sonata by Beethoven, and was at the point of opening my shoulders after the first page introduction to display my prowess in the Allegro, ma non troppo when he deftly touched me on the elbow with the observation “Mmm…you know, I think you could fool a lot of people you are really quite a good pianist.”

During her brief time at the top, du Pré made a remarkable impact. The memories of those who knew and worked with her tell of a natural, spontaneous gift, but as much, if not more, of a radiant personality that shone in every moment of her playing. Her recording of the famous Elgar Cello Concerto has been the benchmark against which every performance has been measured since.

So it would be plain silly to seek out the many other astonishing recordings just by way of demonstrating the breadth of her talent, and I make no apology for sharing this clip of the second movement from the Elgar. It’s only a few minutes, but you will be entranced by two things: the technique and performance, first; and, as the camera fades, a split second glimpse of that gorgeous smile.

In this recording, she is conducted by her husband, Daniel Barenboim. On the 28th and 29th October, Maestro Barenboim is bringing the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Royal Festival Hall in a concert to celebrate her life and raise money for research into MS. An auction of extraordinary lots can be found on http://www.stopmsappeal.com

Events like these, and the progress which has been made over the last 20 years, are grounds for real optimism – and inspiration for young musicians who can hope to avoid the struggles du Pré  endured for fifteen years.

What a loss to music. Had she been ‘lucky’ enough to be diagnosed today, du Pré’s prognosis might have been very different. Watching and listening to this only compounds that loss.


Haydn, failsafe dispeller of the blues.

Do you ever turn to music to lift your spirits when you are down? Few of us would question the ability of music to do this, but have you ever stopped to think how or why?

It is more likely that when we are in need of a pick-me-up we will, instead, select music which reflects more closely our frame of mind at the time than actively seek out something to shift us into a different mood: few of us are disciplined enough to make that mental resolve. But if we should overhear something uplifting not necessarily of our choosing, on the radio, for example, we can soon find ourselves transported to a different and happier place.

We know music can do this; it doesn’t much matter why.

Acknowledging that, therefore, means that all we need to know is whose music we need to call upon to effect this shift. Simple enough on the face of it, but the choice can be daunting and almost so overwhelming that we give up trying and resort to the quicker, simpler, option of selecting the melancholy.

To the rescue, one completely reliable, cast-iron default, who will never disappoint: the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), perhaps the most underrated of the greats. When Sir Simon Rattle, the newly appointed music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, was asked which composer he would invite to dinner, his answer was an unhesitating ‘Haydn’; and I’m fairly certain it was one of the world’s leading cellists, Stephen Isserlis, who recently questioned whether Haydn was even capable of writing a sorrowful note.

Haydn, teacher of Mozart and Beethoven, dispels the myth that classical music needs to be serious. The man had a real sense of humour, and his audiences came to know it in his vast output, which included over 50 string quintets and more than 100 symphonies (earning him the nickname of Father of each of these disciplines).

Haydn’s 1st Cello Concerto lay hidden for nearly 200 years when it was conclusively identified as being by his hand in 1961. It is a piece brimming with exuberance. Spare yourself a few minutes to listen to this really spirited last movement, here played by Stephen Isserlis. This is chamber music at its very finest: a ‘can’t-see-the join’ collaboration between soloist and fellow musicians. It can be tempting to take this movement too quickly to demonstrate virtuosity, it is technically very demanding, but to do so is to risk tripping up and losing sight of the melody. No such danger here.

So the next time you’re feeling a little bluesy, know for certain that Haydn is your instant fail-safe remedy. We will visit his music and life again, but try this for starters. It’s fun, pure and simple.