Monday, March 26, 2018

Go to the cast-off book sales

I'm reading a biography of Jacqueline du Pre (Elizabeth Wilson, Jacqueline du Pre: Her Life, Her Music, Her Legend, Arcade, 1999). It stood out, dark, sleek, serious, from the other castoffs on the library's used book sale shelves. The name stirred a vague memory of something tragic, something a long time ago.

I like reading about musicians and music even though I can't play or sing. In truth I can't understand whole paragraphs, nay pages, of this biography. The author, a musician herself, delves enthusiastically into artistic and emotional assessments of technical work. She goes on about fingering, slides, portamenti and coda, but also discusses concerts as if they were painting or cooking. We have the "brushstrokes" of "that tragic, noble resignation on the glissando" or the "warm, nutty tone" of a Stradivarius cello made in 1680. "...by placing the thumb on the harmonic D and disguising the shift with a bow change, she could articulate the top note with immense clarity and power." One accepts it all kneeling, mystified.

What intrigues also in a biography of a musician is to meet artists who have an intellectual and a creative vocation, who can't pursue it in solitude like a painter, a writer, or I suppose a scientist doing research. Like an actor or a ballerina, the musician can rehearse alone -- but he cannot begin to bring both intellectual and physical work together without the company of other musicians. And yet unlike the actor or dancer, he doesn't require an audience as such. One fellow will do. Jacqueline du Pre, "Jackie," is described often playing happily late into the night with one friend or teacher, or perhaps in a hostess' home for a beloved audience of two. These intimates went away savoring "a never-to-be-forgotten evening listening to the D major Cello Sonatas by Bach and Beethoven." Perfect art, in perfect privacy, with perfect professionalism and perfect companionship -- it is all beautiful and solid and perfect. I like the photo of New Year's Eve in an apartment in New York, 1970. Itzhak Perlman, Artur Rubinstein, and Jacqueline du Pre play trios. Daniel Barenboim turns over [the pages of music as needed]. Champagne coupes sit on nearby little tables.

Another intriguing, and a related thing, that emerges from the biography of a musician is this: musicians deal with great art, but they re-make it as no other artist does. It's like a priesthood, maintaining a supernatural truth. Actors act lines and dancers dance steps, but no painter is permitted to work on a Raphael, or playwright to change a line of Shakespeare. (If those great men had left "scores"" to be re-painted, or rewritten, again and again for centuries, that might be something like music.) Even you or I could badly declaim or clumsily dance. But when musicians bring alive what was in the mind of Bach or Beethoven, they are themselves the necessary partner, operating from another language. We observe. Like the photographer in the New York apartment, we stand outside the priestly circle.

I like this biography in particular because it is so well written and because Jacqueline du Pre herself seems to have been such a joyous and delightful person. Occasionally the author mentions a bit of depression or frustration in her life, and I have not yet reached the tragedy, which was multiple sclerosis at the age of 28. The joy in the book seems to come from three factors which are a pleasure to immerse in. These are, "Jackie" herself, the artist fully happy in her work; the circumstances of her early success, which allowed her to fly busily about, from London to Paris to Berlin to London to Sermoneta -- where are the famed gardens of Ninfa -- and back to London again, making music, studying with masters, playing in the plazas of little Italian towns during summer teaching festivals; and last there is the early 1960s classical music scene in London. Naturally l know absolutely nothing about this, but it enchants. One has an impression of talented, eager young things rushing to and fro in the great city at all hours carrying their cellos, staying for months with friends who live near recording studios, and going into great concert halls to play and be starchily but sympathetically critiqued by very knowledgeable men and women in great newspapers the next day.

One wonders what comes first, talent, a joyous personality, or music? If I buy an inexpensive electronic keyboard and sheet scores simple enough for children, will I too eventually be able to get inside the mind of Mozart? Will I then know what musicians know? (Because I must say I don't care for the sound of the cello. It seems harsh and ugly.) For Jackie the love and knowledge was immediate. She heard a cello on the radio at the age of four and exclaimed "Mommy I want to make that sound." Luckily her mother was a professional pianist, and in time could even pull strings with a fairy godmother able to afford a Stradivarius. Again the almost supernatural, the priestly, shades to music.

Because I came across the name "Shuttleworth" early in the book -- that is Anna Shuttleworth, another cellist, now in her 90s -- I mistakenly thought here was a name from Jaqueline du Pre's parents' generation, maybe a name from the 1920s which my great favorite E.F. Benson, London gadabout, might have picked up and given to his character Olga Bracely. She is the prima donna of the Mapp and Lucia novels, who marries Mr. Shuttleworth and then sighs that she really should start using his name.

It turned out to be coincidence only. One grasps at straws. But Jacqueline du Pre's life and music- making in the 1960s jibe somewhat with the fictional lives and music-making in Benson's books of the 1930s. In both worlds people still entertain themselves. Everybody owns a piano. He too summons his characters for musical evenings, where the hosts play or, on grand occasions, hire famed string quartets down from London. The running joke of the series is that Lucia can always be persuaded to favor her friends with the Moonlight Sonata. Later, when she inherits a townhouse and becomes avant garde, it's "a morsel of Stravinski." She is at once a great snob and an ignoramus; if Benson had been writing in the '60s he would have had her angling to meet the exciting young cellist, only to cluck kindly at the tiny, tiny flaws in her playing.

Finally we consider the miracle of the internet, even as it touches this discarded biography of a great and lovely artist. Elizabeth Wilson is careful to catalogue where she listened to  recordings of Jacqueline du Pre's music, or watched old films of her happy in London (she was famous enough to have documentaries made about her when she was only twenty-two). In 1999 this research amounted to a pilgrimage route that the average reader would not be able to follow. Already "some of her performances were being re-issued on CDs," yes, but for the bulk of it Wilson went to the sources. She visited studios in London or at Danish Radio, or at the New York Philharmonic. A reader at that time would have had to do what we used to do: carefully jot down which album of which concert he hoped to look for in a local music store, then grab his wallet, walk out of his house, and hope for the best. Today we go to YouTube and type in "Jacqueline du Pre" and see a riot of information. We can watch films of her performing the Elgar concerto, conducted by Barenboim. We can watch bits of the very BBC television program broadcast for the first time in 1967. "We did not know what lay ahead," the narrator now says, "but we knew one thing -- Jacqueline du Pre would never be twenty-two again."

If it all sounds a bit sad, well yes it can't help being. But memorial funds, music buildings, and  concerts exist in her name. And as the biographer says, none of it can ever replace the voice which lives on in her audio and video recordings.



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