DATE: 1/15/2005 02:38:00 PM
Stephen linked on his blog to this article recently, which I read with great enthusiasm, and it got me thinking about one of the many little facets of myself as a human being that--it occurred to me then--I had never shared in this space.
It never occurred to me to share it, really, until I started reading Sheila's blog, and saw the way her obsessions, from the Founding Fathers to Humphrey Bogart, made it that much more of a fascinating and multicolored narrative.
So without further ado, allow me to introduce you to one of my irrational artistic obsessions, I guess you could call it--my utter, slavish, fawning devotion and neverending superlatives in the general direction of the cellist Jacqueline Du Pre.
In my humble opinion, at least, she is the single greatest virtuoso of the instrument ever to have lived--and among the greatest musicians, period, in recorded history.
And even though I hate--HATE--people who admonish others that "if you haven't [experienced something I consider important or enjoyable], you haven't lived," I will say this: if you have never heard or seen a recording or videotape of Jacqueline Du Pre playing Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor, you haven't experienced all the beauty the world has to offer. Most of it, maybe 99% of it--but not all of it.
Her performance, which is considered the authoritative rendition of the piece, and forever linked her name and the composer's, is simply the most powerful piece of music I've ever heard. And not just because of the music--although it is awesome in its pathos simply as the composer intended it, Jackie took it and made it...simply unspeakable.
There have been many virtuosi, on many instruments. Many names that have gone down in history simply for manipulating a machine of wood and metal to produce sound waves in a recognizeable pattern with more, how shall we say it--accuracy? Than their counterparts. Don't get me wrong--with many pieces for certain instruments, including Beethoven's Violin Concerto (another of my favorites, esp. as played by Isaac Stern, but now I'm getting off subject) or Tchaikovsky's Roccoco Variations for cello and orchestra, simply the correct iteration of the notes set down by the composer is a feat few humans on earth can physically accomplish, and the performance of the piece alone designates a person (particularly a young person) as a "virtuoso".
Put another way: one of my violin teachers growing up forgot more about playing stringed instruments than I'll never know. And he worked his entire life just to play the opening five bars of the Beethoven, and could do it recognizeably, and from memory. That was all.
Jackie could do all that, performing challenging technical works like Bach's Cello Suites (a work Yo-Yo Ma also did some very nice things with) and Dvorak's Cello Concerto at a mastery level, but with these and other pieces--especially that inimitable Elgar--she went beyond the level of simple technical proficiency and into another realm, that of a true, original artist.
This is a rare accomplishment. Few people truly leave a mark on music simply by playing one of its instruments and without contributing to its literature. But at least to my mind, Jackie did it.
The reason I think so is, as a matter of fact, one of the chief points critics raised against her, at least according to the article Steve directed me to:
Du Pré's "excessive emotion" was one of many aspects of her playing that provoked the critics. Everything was considered excessive — the tone, the way she "threw herself around" as she played, the portamenti(slides between notes) — except for desired qualities that were sometimes absent, such as understanding of form, appropriate style and, occasionally, good intonation. The story goes that du Pré learned the Delius Cello Concerto without having a clue about the orchestral part, and generally she had scant regard for the minor details in the score, such as dynamics, that supposedly indicated the composer's intentions.
But...she had something more significant to offer than precision. "Once [it was pointed out to her that] the composer had written forte and she was playing something else. She responded, 'Once the composer has finished the piece, it's mine!' " That's not a politically correct comment, but it works! It means you give all your love, commitment and joy to the music.
One of those portamenti is actually among the most memorable aspects of the Elgar Concerto's theme--a trembling, deep-throated slide in the cello's lower range to bring the theme to its conclusion--a conclusion that, if you don't find it devastating, I just can't relate to you as a person, and that's that.
I giggled when I read that quote from Jackie: "It's mine!!" That's what sets her apart. The music is hers. She makes it hers. She tells its story. She plays well enough to make a statement.
And even better than all that, she has some profoundly meaningful things to say, if you're willing to listen.