New York Times
The definitive biography of a beautiful musical genius, one of the best-lovedmusicians of the 20th century.
New York Times
The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review
- Arcade Publishing
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The Birth of Talent
`The musical talent may well show itself earliest of any; for music is something innate and internal, which needs little nourishment from without, and no experience drawn from life.'
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The phenomenon of a child prodigy is always a source of wonder. It is impossible to explain the extraordinary childhood abilities of a genius such as Mozart without speculating (as did Goethe) that his talent was divinely invested. In Mozart's case, the early gift proved to be the precursor of the inspired works of his maturity. But too often we are dazzled by a precocious outward display of virtuosity; when the prodigy grows up, he disappoints our early hopes. A young musician is only likely to attain a great destiny if his creative gift is welded to an unerring intuition and is enriched by a capacity for profound emotion.
The violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whose gifts were apparent at a very early age, described the strange imbalance between the prodigy's inner world of passion and restricted life experience: `I was a child, I knew so much, I felt so many emotions, but I had never made their acquaintance! I felt the tragedy in life, I felt abandon, exuberance, exaltation, but hadn't met these feelings in the outer world.' Menuhin, speaking with the wisdom of hindsight, saw this emotional precociousness almost as a limitation of his early performances. His development as an artist meant connecting these intuited emotions with real-life experiences, a difficult process of catching up with oneself in adolescence.
Jacqueline du Pré only began to perform publicly at the age of Sixteen a late start in comparison with most prodigies. Nevertheless, her musical genius was evident at a very early age and its special nature was defined by her rich emotional inner world, rather than her precocious virtuosity. Her mother, Iris du Pré, recalled that when the four-year-old Jackie was first given a cello to play it was a full-sized `whopper' she exclaimed in delight, `Oh Mummy, I do so love my cello.' Iris recalled her astonishment at `the enormous wealth of feeling' behind these childish words, which prompted her to foresee for her daughter a lifelong commitment to music and the cello. It is to Iris's credit that, while instantly recognising Jackie's special gifts, she saw to it that they were protected, carefully nurtured and only gradually exposed to the light.
Indeed, du Pré's relatively late appearance on the concert scene was partly due to an accident of birth. The English have always shown considerable distaste for pushing a very young musician into the public arena. In contrast to Menuhin's successful concert career as a child, the English pianist and harpsichordist George Malcolm remembers that he was deliberately held back from performing. While his parents and teachers recognised his musical potential at a very young age, they had no wish to imitate what they saw as the flagrant child exploitation of the boy Menuhin, his exact contemporary.
This aversion of the English to exhibitionist display was at odds with the European tradition of stimulating performing talent at an early age. As Iris du Pré enjoyed recounting, it was probably for this reason that the veteran cellist Pablo Casals assumed that the fifteen-year-old girl who had just given an extraordinarily vital performance of the Saint-Saëns A minor Cello Concerto at his Zermatt master class could not be English.
`Oh, but I am,' she told him when challenged.
`But what is your name?' Surely no English person could display such intense feeling and uninhibited passion in their music-making.
`Jacqueline du Pré.'
Casals just roared with laughter, convinced that he had proved his point.
The name du Pré, however, derives from the Channel Islands, which had links with England from the middle of the eleventh century when they separated from Normandy. Although geographically closer to France and indeed, until relatively recently predominantly French-speaking the Channel Islands looked to England politically and culturally. Jackie used to take pride in saying that her father, Derek du Pré had never left the island of Jersey before the age of twenty, and when he did depart he was the first of many generations to do so. Like so many family legends, this was not strictly speaking true, as he was born in Portsmouth and spent some of his childhood holidays in England. But for all that, Derek du Pré considered himself a Jersey man and transmitted to his daughter something of an islander's proud, independent spirit.
Jacqueline's musical talent was inherited through the maternal line. Her mother, Iris Greep was a professional pianist who, in other circumstances, might have become a soloist in her own right. But more important, she possessed a remarkable gift as a children's music teacher and she had the sensitivity to recognise the unique nature of Jackie's talent namely the deeply felt inner passion which illuminated her attitude to music from the earliest age, whether it was in her lisping of nursery rhymes, or singing of Christmas carols, or in her immediate identification with the sound of the cello.
Born in 1914, Iris Greep came from a humble Devon family. Her father, William Greep, was a ship's joiner in the Devonport dockyard and his musical activities were limited to singing in music-hall productions. Her mother, Maud Greep (née Mitchell), realised that Iris was exceptionally bright and bought her seven-year-old daughter a piano as a means of stimulating her outside school. Iris proved to have real musical talent and was soon winning prizes at local music festivals. Later she won a scholarship to Devonport High School where, apart from doing well academically, she enjoyed extrascholastic activities such as swimming and drama. In the meantime she was making such remarkable progress on the piano that a year before leaving school she went to London to take her performing diploma. Iris made a good impression on the adjudicators at the Royal Academy of Music (two of them would become her teachers), gained her LRAM and returned home determined to become a professional musician. The following year, at the age of eighteen, she applied for a place at the London School of Dalcroze Eurhythmics. Through winning a scholarship, Iris now had the financial means to leave home.
Established in 1913 by Percy Ingham, the London School of Eurhythmics was closely associated with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, who had created his method with the aim of basing musical education on rhythm as a means of expression, whereby the co-ordination of bodily movement and music help to fuse the integration of body and mind. Although his system was originally conceived for musicians, Dalcroze Stated that `its chief value lies in the fact that it trains the powers of perception and of expression in the individual and renders easier the externalisation of natural emotions'.
The Dalcroze method became a way of life for its practitioners. As Bernard Shaw put it, Dalcrozians `walk to music, play to music, think to music, obey drill commands that would bewilder a guardsman to music, live to music, get so clear-headed about music that they can move their several limbs each in a different metre until they become living magazines of cross-rhythms and, what is more, make music for others to do all these things'.
Apart from the evident importance of Dalcroze's system in children's education, it had an enormous influence in its day on dancers and actors, and was incorporated into theatre and dance by such diverse figures as Greville Barker, Isadora Duncan and Marie Rambert. Rambert in turn used a synthesis of Dalcrozian eurhythmics and classical ballet in her work with the Diaghilev company, and specifically helped Nijinsky to choreograph the rhythmically complex score of Stravinsky's Sacre du printemps.
Hence, when Iris Greep gained the certificate from the London School of Eurhythmics in 1935, she had become a committed Dalcrozian and remained involved with the method for the rest of her life. She was listed as an outside lecturer of the Dalcroze Society's Training Centre from 1949 until 1963 and in 1953 was elected to a commission, headed by Ernest Read, responsible for amending the syllabus of the Training Centre.
A year before she acquired the Dalcroze certificate Iris enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music as a first-study pianist with Eric Grant. Initially she chose viola as her second study, but very soon she had abandoned this instrument for composition and harmony lessons with Theodore Holland.
From 1935 onwards her fees were largely met by scholarships she was the recipient of the Bach and Beethoven Scholarship and the William Stokes Bursary, and during the following four years she won a number of prizes for harmony, composition and piano. Additionally she supported herself through teaching piano and eurhythmics.
Iris gained her ARCM certificate in 1937, but she continued her studies until the outbreak of the war, while starting to play and teach professionally. Eric Grant had a high enough opinion of her to nominate her as his deputy and in 1940 she was appointed sub-professor of harmony at the RAM.
While in London, Iris lodged with Mary May, a fellow Dalcrozian, who described her then as `about five foot seven tall, broad-shouldered and sturdy, good-looking with auburn hair'. Mary grew very fond of Iris and through her mother provided her with important contacts, including a wealthy patroness of the Arts, Violet Becker, who financed her London début recital. Mary's mother also introduced her to the German concert pianist Egon Petri.
According to Mary, Iris appeared to be `entirely unversed in the art of living. She never knew that if you opened a door you should close it. Once I found the bath water coming down the stairs we had to teach her about living in a house.' She found Iris's parents to be simple but warm-hearted her father once attended a party at the house, but he was a `shy man who felt quite out of place in London'.
If Iris had arrived in London with few social graces, she quickly learnt to adapt to new situations and to appreciate the novelties and excitement of city life. Here she was especially fortunate in having teachers who not only transmitted professional skills, but also watched over the overall development of their students' personalities.
Iris's piano teacher Eric Grant was a highly civilised musician, if somewhat academic in his approach. His pupils remember that he was not interested in virtuosity for its own sake, rather he instilled deeply felt musical values although some claimed that he did so at the expense of their technique. But Grant was as intent on enlarging his students' cultural horizons as training their fingers. Urbane, witty and with an eye for the girls, he enjoyed introducing his pupils to life outside the walls of the Academy, taking them to concerts at the Queen's Hall and acquainting them with the gastronomic delights of Soho. Not surprisingly, they were devoted to him.
Theodore Holland was likewise a teacher whose influence extended far beyond the walls of the teaching room. As a young man he had studied composition and violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London, then at the Berlin Hochschule, where his teacher, Joachim, did much to influence Holland's musical tastes. In 1927 Holland was appointed Professor at the Royal Academy of Music. A man of great dignity, he gained considerable prestige in London's musical circles, becoming a member of the Royal Philharmonic Society and of other public bodies.
Holland's music, light, well-crafted and full of idiosyncratic charm, had its day in the pre-war years when his vaudeville-like stage works gained popularity. Later his Edwardian `salon' style gave way to composition of a more serious and astringent character. Ellingham Marshes, an impressionistic orchestral evocation of Holland's favourite Suffolk landscape, achieved considerable success at the time.
But by the mid-1930s Holland's works were no longer much performed. Margot Pacey, a friend of Iris who likewise studied composition with Holland, recalled his disappointment at being overtaken by more modern trends. `I remember, to my cost, that suddenly everybody at the Academy was talking about Schoenberg and wouldn't listen to anything else.'
This, however, was not the prevalent tendency. Another of Holland's composition students, the pianist Ronald Smith, claimed, `Only a coterie of people in London knew about the avant-garde, and Schoenberg was considered very outré. Sibelius was the big name in those days. Theo Holland knew what he liked and he couldn't stomach Sibelius "my dear boy, when these dreadful tunes appear, one has to leave the room." In his aesthetic he went as far as accepting early Stravinsky.'
But Holland never used his influence to further performances of his own music. Rather, he wielded his power on behalf of the younger generation and encouraged his students to be daring. Ronald Smith recalled: `Theo's favourite word was "cracked" which meant music with some twist to it. He told me that once while adjudicating at the Academy a very bad composer had presented some work. The other adjudicators dismissed his score, but Holland found something in it. "It's cracked," he said "but it's got something." The composer in question turned out to be Benjamin Britten.'
Holland helped Iris to develop a working compositional technique, although she remained one of his less adventurous students. After she had left the Academy she continued to consult him, both about professional and private matters. Ronald Smith recalls an occasion soon after the beginning of the war when Iris came to Holland's class clutching a batch of scores. Smith was particularly impressed by one of them, a ballet entitled Cherry Stones, which was later staged in London and achieved some measure of success. Around this time Iris also wrote a children's opera. This was to be the area that attracted her most; she wrote for and with children for the rest of her life.
At the Academy, Iris's loyalties were divided between composition and piano. Margot Pacey, who greatly admired her talents, perceived that `Iris was on the same level as a pianist and composer, winning compositional prizes and playing concerts. But she never got a chance to get going in either field because of the outbreak of the war.'
Nevertheless, the opportunity to go to Poland in 1938 to study with Egon Petri at his summer courses in Zakopane indicated that Iris entertained hopes of pursuing a career as a concert pianist. Together with Artur Schnabel, Petri was one of the great names in piano teaching in the pre-war years. Petri had been a favourite pupil of Busoni, and was noted for his performances of Liszt and Bach particularly in his own and Busoni's transcriptions. Evidently Iris studied this repertoire with him music that did not enter into Theodore Holland's aesthetic.
Iris's trip to Poland was momentous in more ways than one. A young Englishman, Derek du Pré, had come with his accordion on a walking holiday to the Polish Carpathians. On arrival at Zakopane, he sought out the young Englishwoman who was staying in a villa on the outskirts of the town. For the rest of his holiday Derek was caught up with Iris. They walked in the Tatrai mountains, listened to and played for folk musicians and fell in love in this romantic setting. On returning to London Derek wrote up his holiday impressions, asking Iris to contribute a chapter about Ukrainian folk music, with some annotated folk songs. Entitled When Poland Smiled, this somewhat innocuous travelogue was privately published with charming illustrations by Hector Whistler. It seems incredible that it contains no reference to the troubled political situation of 1938.
Mary May recalls that Iris had immediately set her heart on marriage. When she brought Derek to the house, May discovered him to be `a well-educated, well-mannered gentleman'. Derek du Pré came from a prosperous family who owned a successful perfume-making business. He attended a good local secondary school, Victoria College, and at the age of eighteen started working for Lloyds Bank in St Helier. Two years later he was transferred to London, where he worked for the rest of his life. In 1937 he left banking for a new job as assistant editor of The Accountant.
By the time he had met Iris, Derek was already thirty and ready to settle down. Tall and handsome, with piercing blue eyes, he was a naturally shy man. Whether it was due to his reticence in the courtship or to Iris's ambition to have time to start her own career, the couple only decided to marry two years later. It seemed obvious to friends from the start that whatever Iris lacked in her social background she more than made up for with strength of character and talent. And it was she who was to become the dominant force in the marriage.
In accordance with the severe wartime conditions, Iris and Derek got married with a minimum of ceremony at Kensington Register Office on 25 July 1940. In any case, Derek's family had been cut off from all contact with him since the recent German occupation of the Channel Islands; neither were Iris's parents able to attend the wedding. Isména Holland recalled Iris telling her that they started married life with no possessions, in unfurnished lodgings sitting on packing cases, possibly in the company of a Jersey cow, an apocryphal wedding gift from Derek's friends and relatives.
In July 1941 Derek enlisted. While he was doing his military training, first in Lockerbie, then at Sandhurst, Iris continued her professional life as a pianist, teaching and giving concerts and broadcasts, mostly outside London. She played frequently with the outstanding viola player Winifred Copperwheat, with whom she gave a first performance of a work by Theodore Holland and for whom she herself wrote a sonata. With the birth of her children these activities were necessarily curtailed.
The du Pré's first child, Hilary, was born in April 1942, shortly before Derek received his commission as a captain in the Coldstream Guards Regiment. Two years later he was transferred to Oxford and it was there that their second daughter, Jacqueline Mary, was born on 26 January 1945. She was baptised in the autumn of 1945 at the Chapel of Worcester College, where Derek was a member of the senior common room. The child's chosen godparents, Isména Holland and Lord Lascelles (the future Earl of Harewood) were to play important roles at various stages of her life.
Derek du Pré had got to know George Lascelles at an Officer Cadet Training Unit course in 1942. Lord Harewood remembers that, `Quite a lot of the fun that I had at that rather dreary stage of my life was with Derek. We used to bicycle from Sandhurst some distance to go and see Iris in hospital, just after Hilary was born. It was then that Derek asked me if I would be godfather to a second child, if they ever had another to which I agreed.'
While Lascelles saw active fighting in Italy, Derek spent the war years in Britain, having been seconded to Intelligence. He never told his family that during this period he had worked for MI5. Lord Harewood recalled: `When I came back to England in May 1945, Derek got in touch with me, and told me that he and Iris had just had another daughter. I saw Jackie for the first time at the christening in October that year, when I carried herwith some difficultyto the font. She was a big and rapidly growing girl.'
Jacqueline's godmother, Isména Holland, the wife of Iris's teacher Theodore, was born in Germany of an English father and a German mother, and had inherited a fortune in her own right. After the First World War Isména came to England, aged seventeen. When she married Theodore some years later it came as a surprise to his friends and Colleagues Isména was nearly thirty years his junior and much nearer in age to his students. Theodore's health had been seriously undermined by the shell-shock he suffered during the First World War and Isména devoted herself wholly to her husband's welfare.
In her spare time she took up weaving and calligraphy, copying her husband's scores with a meticulous hand. The couple had decided against having children because of the inherent genetic risks due to their being first cousins. But they extended warm hospitality to students, friends and colleagues alike at their beautiful Kensington house in Elton Road, where they often held music parties and concerts.
Although on the surface Isména Holland seemed an austere and somewhat forbidding character, she understood and practised the values of loyalty and supportive friendship. Hence it was a natural step for both Margot Pacey and Iris to ask her to become godmother to their daughters. Isména took her duties more than seriously, proving an extremely generous benefactor, as well as a source of wisdom and advice.
The du Pré family moved again to St Albans when Derek was demobilised and went back to his pre-war job in London as assistant editor (then editor) of The Accountant. In 1948, shortly after the birth of their son Piers, the du Prés moved again to a larger house at 14 Bridle Way, Purley, twenty miles south of London, within easy commuting distance of the city. It was to be the family home for the next ten years.
Meet the Author
Elizabeth Wilson is an established writer on classical music and a professional cellist who knew Jacqueline du Pré in her playing days. Wilson was Rostropovich’s first conservatory cello student, and she wrote a biography of him, Rostropovich: The Musical Life of the Great Cellist, Teacher, and Legend as well as the biography Shostakovich: A Life Remembered.
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