Born in Oxford, du Pré’ began cello lessons at an early age. Taught by both Herbet Walenn and the celebrated cellist William Pleeth she went on to take every possible prize available to cellists at the Guildhall School of Music before her career began in earnest in 1961. Then, at the age of just 16, she played a concert at Wigmore Hall in London, using a 1672 Stradivarius that had been presented to her anonymously.
On 21 March 1962, du Pré’ made her concerto debut here at our Royal Festival Hall, playing the Elgar Cello Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Schwarz. It was to be the first performance of a happy association between the cellist and Southbank Centre. In 1967, now firmly established as one of the world’s leading cellists, having performed with orchestras throughout the world, du Pré married conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim.
The following year the pair returned to Southbank Centre to help begin London’s South Bank Summer Musical Festival. By now du Pré and Barenboim had established a fond friendship with musicians Yehudi Menuhin, Zubin Mehta, Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman, a bond which led to many memorable chamber performances. Indeed the closeness of their friendship can be seen first hand in this rare footage, taken backstage at our Queen Elizabeth Hall.
There’s a tendency, perhaps, certainly from outside the world of classical music, to view the orchestra as a stuffy, formal environment. Yet in this clip we see four of the world’s leading classical performers - du Pré, Barenboim, Perlman and Mehta - each of whom would go on to be huge, international stars - larking and joking ahead of a performance. In a relaxed Southbank Centre dressing room the quartet exchange instruments for an impromptu and entertaining recital; du Pré taking Perlman’s violin; Perlman on du Pré’s cello, whilst Barenboim takes on Mehta’s bass as the latter takes a seat at the piano.
The moment captured above, occurred ahead of their performance of the 1969 performance of the Schubert Piano Quintet in A major, The Trout. In the additional backstage footage below, from Christopher Nupen’s subsequent film of the same name, we’re given a further endorsement of the closeness and camaraderie of the young musicians.
Sadly, in 1971, du Pré began to lose sensitivity in her fingers and other parts of her body, a condition which naturally hampered her ability to play and perform. She took a two year sabbatical, performing only rarely, and in October 1973 was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; effectively ending her career at the age of just 27.
Losing the ability to play was understandably a great wrench to du Pré, as she explained in an interview some years later.
Du Pré eventually succumbed to her condition in 1987. Since her death, du Pré’s widower, Barenboim, has long supported and championed the work of the MS Society.