It was a beautiful spring day in 1983 that I came to know the extraordinary Jacqueline du Pré. I had written a letter to her in great admiration some weeks earlier, and had asked if she would accept meeting a young cellist and if she might consider hearing me play. I promptly received a reply to call at her house in Knightsbridge, at 2 Rutland Gardens Mews.
I was surprised (and rather panicked) to be able to not only meet one of the century’s greatest musicians, but to be able to play for her as well. I decided that on this earth, to meet such an extraordinary and unique person must be one of the greatest privileges, and that I had to make the most of this encounter with her.
I decided to come with my pianist, thinking that it would not be proper to ask her to listen to a cello sonata without a pianist and in addition decided to prepare three complete recital programs, hoping that maybe something in it would strike her fancy.
At her house we were let in by her wonderful and caring nurse Ruth Ann Cannings, and I could feel my apprehension growing by the minute. Finally she came downstairs and I was able to introduce myself and my pianist. 'So what would you like to play for me today?' she asked me with that eternally sunshiny face and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this and that, those three sonatas etc. etc…’ And then she said to me ‘Did you say the Arpeggione sonata? I would LOVE to hear the Arpeggione sonata.’
So, with my bow trembling in the air, I set about to start....’It is SO easy to play!’ she said, ‘...Oh, by the way, would you like ANOTHER lesson soon?’, before I had even played the first note. I told her that if she could bear to hear what I played, then it would indeed be my biggest pleasure to come back. ‘Play me the first eight bars and I’ll let you know!’ she said with an amused grin, and so I did. That was the beginning of five years of close work with this genius of geniuses.
There is something so unique with Jacqueline. Later that year I attended the Prussia Cove International Music Seminar in Cornwall, England, for a masterclass with Jacqueline’s own teacher William Pleeth, and had another lesson with Jacqueline just after that. In his masterclass Pleeth heard a wonderful cellist playing the Beethoven A Major Sonata, and stopped him just after the first three notes (which starts with an A, going towards the E and F sharp) saying, ‘How can you play like that with the glissando [sliding from one note to another] between the first two notes? The piano must play the same phrase [after the introduction by the cello alone] and cannot use a glissando so you must not as well.’ After this I went proudly to Jacqueline’s to play the same sonata knowing that I held a truth of truths from her own teacher. She stopped me after the first three notes saying ‘Why don’t you use a glissando between the first and second note?’ and upon hearing my reason that the piano couldn’t do it in the same way so I shouldn’t, she exclaimed, ‘But if he COULD have, he WOULD have done it, so DO IT!!!’
Her intensity of communication is legendary, as well as her sense of humour. At another lesson she said to me, ‘Put down your cello [I was playing on her 1970 Peresson cello] and listen to me. Do you know that I have an incurable disease, one that overtakes one, it takes everything with it - there is no escape.’ At my cringing at the thought of the next part she said, ‘Death is the only escape. Do you know what the name of this disease is?’ Struck dumb, I could only nod... 'It’s called…… glissanditis!!!!!' she said, howling with laughter.
Sometimes we would listen to her beloved records together, and even when she could no longer play, she would know the exact number of trills given to a note, such was her power of observation. Once, upon a return trip from San Francisco, I was scheduled to have a lesson at 9.30am at her home as usual. I jumped off the plane at Heathrow into the tube running with suitcase and cello to come eye-to-eye with her in the brilliant morning sunlight in the courtyard, her mum at her side. ‘You are 3 minutes LATE!’ she giggled. It turns out that her mother had popped by. And just as well for me, for we met later in the day. Whew!
In one lesson, when I played the Elgar concerto for her she said, ‘Can’t you do it this way, or like that?’ Finally, in exasperation I said, ‘But I’m trying as HARD as I can’ to which she looked at me and simply said ‘Why don’t you just try it EASY?!’
The last time we met was two weeks before she left us all, and it was
during a last call a few days after I asked her 'What’s news this week, Jacqueline?' and she said ‘Quick - go listen to my Boccherini concerto - I can’t believe the beauty of this work. It’s springtime everywhere...'
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If you have a personal recollection of a concert or a meeting with Jacqueline,
please let me know. Thank you.