Reflections on Elgar's Cello Concerto

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Watch a video of Jacqueline du Pré performing the first movement of Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, below.

There’s a doubleness to listening to Jacqueline du Pré play Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. The music is powerful, beginning with vivid chords from the cello, which continues with a mournful, downward melody that is greeted by the winds. Jackie, as everyone called her, said she loved the piece because she “felt it had such a wide range of expression, it went from terrible pathos to ridiculous fun and amusement.”  

On top of the music, now, there’s also the modern-day fairy tale of the exuberant young cellist — early, remarkable talent, brilliant success, a passionate romance and marriage to the pianist Daniel Barenboim — that veers suddenly into tragedy. In her early twenties, Jacqueline du Pré began to lose feeling in her fingers, and she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 28. She died 14 years later.

When I was learning to play the cello, I spent hours listening to Jacqueline du Pré’s recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites, Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, and of course her performance of the Elgar conducted by Barenboim when both of them were so young. I idolized Jacqueline du Pré. She played with such strength and exuberance and delicacy. Just now, watching a video of her performance, I’m moved by how music wasn’t just in her hands and her head; she played the cello with her entire body, swaying, tossing her long hair, at times grimacing, often smiling. She was sometimes criticized for being overly emotional in her performances, but the passion with which she threw herself into her music reaches through the speakers now to grab your heart.

In a 1980 interview with her friend, filmmaker Christopher Nupen, Jackie is still beautiful, her eyes luminous, but her body is static, and even talking is difficult. When Nupen asks how life has been since she had to stop playing, she says, “It can be quite difficult, because if one’s been very busy doing something one’s loved very much, it’s hard to try to rebuild something that feels worthwhile. So that’s really been my job, rebuilding.”

Rebuilding has been our job, too, over the past ten years. The Elgar Cello Concerto isn’t a requiem, but listening to Jackie play it, with all of the music’s pathos and delight, lets us mourn the tragedy that struck on that beautiful September morning ten years ago, and also feel how life, with its difficulty as well as moments of “ridiculous fun and amusement” moves us forward, changing the world, changing us. 


Julie Burstein is the author of Spark: How Creativity Works.