We’ll never let you down: tribute to legendary cellist Jacqueline Du Pré

In 1987, British cello legend Jacqueline Du Pré succumbed to multiple sclerosis at the age of 42. Although she hadn’t played any concerts for fifteen years, a wave of sadness washed over the world. In her short career she had accomplished more than many other musicians in their entire life. She played on all the famous stages, was married to Daniel Barenboim and worked with the greatest conductors and orchestras.

Stichting Cellosonate Nederland and OT rotterdam honour her memory with the opera We’ll never let you down. It was premiered online in the Cello Biennale on 28 October, and will tour the Netherlands in the coming months, corona permitting.

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With her swaying long hair and intense playing Jacqueline Du Pré enchanted everyone. According to many, she played ‘as if making love’. In the restricted period she was able to perform, she inspired none other than Prince Charles to take up the cello as well. But even though the world was at her feet, she was no diva. Not only the audience loved her, but also the people behind the scenes.

In 1983, a recording engineer said: ‘Everyone worshipped her: the musicians who played with her, the conductor, but also the recording technicians. She was the ideal artist: she never made demands and always complied with our wishes. – No matter how long it sometimes took to get a microphone right. She is one of the three musicians about whom I have never heard a word of discontent.’

Blazon tainted

This changed in 1997 on the publication of A genius in the family: an intimate memoir of Jacqueline du Pré. In this book Hilary and Piers Du Pré describe their sister’s less beautiful sides and even portray as a manipulative, sexual predator. Jacqueline allegedly claimed Hilary’s husband and shared his bed for a year and a half.

The book caused a lot of controversy, just like the film Hilary and Jackie that appeared in 1998. Brother and sister were accused of jealousy and sensationalism by musicians who had been close to Jackie. Moreover, their book turned out to contain numerous errors. Yet the blazon of the almost sanctified Jacqueline was forever tarnished.

Some two decades later, cellist Doris Hochscheid, baritone Mattijs van de Woerd and pianist Frans van Ruth defend her reputation with the mini opera We’ll never let you down. The Surinamese-Jewish composer René Samson (1948-2019) was recruited for the music but died prematurely after having finished only one act. The opera was completed by the young composers Mathilde Wantenaar and Max Knigge. Doris Hochscheid explains why this opera had to be made and why she asked René Samson to compose the music.

Man and musician

‘I discovered René Samson in the late 1990s, along with pianist Frans van Ruth and violinist Jacobien Rozemond, with whom I then formed a piano trio. At the time hardly anybody knew him as a composer, but his music immediately convinced us because of its uniqueness. After this first acquaintance Frans and I asked him to write a piece for our duo, which became the Cello Sonata. This initiated a flux of many other chamber music pieces.’

‘René was very pleasant to work with. He behaved modestly, but it was evident he had something essential to say. His music always moves me, for in it I not only hear him as a musician, but also as a human being. How he was searching, and trying to relate to the great composers of the past. At the same time he struggled with the demand for renewal, imposed by the modernists. Other living composers experienced this pressure, too, and René sought to find his own way in this issue.’

‘For instance, when we first talked about a theatrical project. He had a line-up in mind of baritone, trombone, harp and cello. When I asked him why he said: “I finally want to break away from those traditional instrumentations.” But once Jacqueline du Pré had been chosen, he came back to me. He considered the combination of only cello and piano better suited to this subject. We joked about this: “Well, shame for the trombone and harp for now, perhaps next time.” Because of his premature death, nothing ever came of this, of course.’

In We’ll never let you down you not only play the cello, but also act. Was that your own wish?

‘In recent years I’ve worked a lot in music theatre productions. I found that very enjoyable, but also really unsatisfactory. The music too often only serves to support the story. Even though the musicians wear nice costumes and sit on stage instead of in the pit, they are ultimately a kind of enhanced props. Yes, they produce sound, but they are not part of the action; actors or singers are hired for that purpose. I always thought: I want to participate myself!’

‘On top of that, I got breast cancer in 2013, and my hectic music practice suddenly came to a standstill. Fortunately, a few months later I was able to return to the stage again, but something had shifted. I realised that not everything I did always inspired me. It was as if a part of me couldn’t really come into its own. I wanted more space – for myself, my body, my emotions, also on stage. I took acting lessons. That was liberating, because acting really felt like playing. I could let my imagination run free and felt as if I had finally “landed” in my own body. Since then I’ve become more selective in my choices and make a lot of music theatre, preferably a bit experimental.’

Was it your idea to make a chamber opera together with René Samson?

No, that came about in consultation. I had received a development budget from the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts. My application contained a number of pilots to investigate whether certain collaborations would succeed. I wanted to make something with René for cello and piano in which I also had text, something theatrical. He wanted to write for singing, and suggested Mattijs van de Woerd, whom I did not yet know. Mattijs in turn mentioned Gerrit Timmers and Mirjam Koen van OT rotterdam. He had previously worked with them at the Reisopera. That turned out to be a golden team, it’s fun every day during rehearsals!

Jacqueline du Pré & Daniel Barenboim (c) Davidoff

Online shaming and fake news

Gerrit and Mirjam chose to write about Jacqueline Du Pré as a matter of course. They started reading about her and were captivated by her story – all that rubbish her family poured out over her, which later returned in the film. At the time, many friends were already worried about it, as you can read in contemporary interviews. What’s more, it touches on a topical theme. Nowadays people are being ‘shamed’ online, gossip is being spread without their being able to do anything about it. Not to mention fake news, that feeds blatant lies to entire population groups.’

Do you also have a personal connection with Jacqueline Du Pré?

‘I discovered her in the ’80s, when I had just decided to become a cellist, I was still a teenager. I found her playing intense and moving. I loved the fact that she was a woman, because there weren’t that many female cellists back then. And of course she had that enormous charisma. This strongly appealed to me: someone who did exactly what she wanted on stage and visibly enjoyed it. That’s rare.’

‘When the film Hilary and Jackie was released in 1998, I studied with Melissa Phelps. She was guest-lecturing in Amsterdam and had been a student of Jackie herself. They had become friends, and she was horrified by the film. She gave me a different biography about Jackie, written by Elisabeth Wilson. This describes her development as a cellist, it was a fascinating read. I got the feeling that as a cellist she may not have received all the credits she deserves. – Maybe also because she wasn’t always taken seriously in a man’s world, with her long blond hair.’

‘Anyway, I read that she was very serious about her profession and knew exactly what she was doing on the cello and why. It really wasn’t all intuition, she worked very hard! I found that inspiring. Contrary to what people sometimes think, what we do doesn’t just come out of the blue. We work very hard, day in and day out, for years. But this kind of background information is less popular with the public. They want to be “bedazzled”.’

Gerrit Timmers and Mirjam Koen wrote the libretto, in English. How did they go about?

‘They mainly used quotes from friends and biographers. They didn’t want to make up yet another story, it had to stay close to what had already been said. The crux is: how do you behave when someone you love is the subject of gossip, do you intervene or don’t you dare? But also: if someone you are friends with is ill for a long time and dies, you may feel that you haven’t been there enough for them. For me, the opera is also about friendship and what you do to protect your friends. Mattijs and I play two people who were close to Jacqueline and who are shocked by the negative reports.’

In 2019 you played an excerpt from the piece in the presence of René Samson, who died shortly after. What did that mean for you and for the project?

‘This was a mere pilot performance at the time. René’s main concern was to try out what was possible with a cello and whether the idea would work. I’m glad we did it, otherwise this project would never have gotten off. In July 2019 he died of a cardiac arrest after a fall from his bicycle. That was deeply shocking. I remember well the moment we were informed of his passing. We were just celebrating the beginning of the holiday…’

‘Our first thought was that our project could not go ahead. But pretty soon the idea arose to have the music completed by two young composers, one act each. Thus René’s original score could still sound a number of times. We think he would have agreed to this – rather than putting his work in the closet. Mathilde Wantenaar composed the first act, Max Knigge the second; the third and last act was written by René.’

Did you ask them to compose in his style?

‘No, it was our intention for them to remain true to their own style. However, we did ask them to use some of his motifs or themes, to give the listener a little more grip. They have complied with our request brilliantly and subtly. It’s wonderful that none of the three composers shies away from tonality, even though they each deal with it in their own way.’

‘Moreover, they share a strong feeling for theatricality and for the text – again each in their own way. Mathilde really dives deep into the poetry and the meaning of what is being said. Max writes very illustrative and is incredibly virtuoso in interweaving text and music. René’s score beautifully evokes the emotions of the characters.’

Nor does Hochscheid attempt to imitate Du Pré’s playing: ‘That’s not even possible in any way! That said, I don’t specifically emphasize my individuality either, but simply play the way I feel. – Both in speaking and playing the cello. I have, however, tried to identify with her and her sister’s character. And, naturally, with my own character as a friend. I have noticed that impersonating those roles affects my cello playing. I hadn’t expected this interaction, but I think it’s fantastic!’

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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1 Response to We’ll never let you down: tribute to legendary cellist Jacqueline Du Pré

  1. Pingback: Cellos in the News: Top Stories of the Week - 27 November

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