I have just made a wonderful discovery—a riveting video performance of the Dvorak Cello Concerto by the young Jacqueline Du Pré that somehow had been lost. I am indebted to my good friend of many years Martyn Becker, for alerting me to it. Music lovers have long been admirers of the cellist’s first recording of the Elgar Concerto with Sir John Barbirolli, so the depth and color and freshness of her playing should come as no surprise. But still…
The story really begins 30 years before this astonishing performance. It is 1938, one year before the start of the Second World War and the West, led by Great Britain, sacrifices the country of Czechoslovakia to assuage the mighty expansionist ambitions of Germany’s Third Reich and its leader, Adolf Hitler. Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in justifying the betrayal, calls it “a country we know nothing about in a distant part of the world.” As a direct result, the country is overrun and then occupied by the Nazis until 1945 when it is “liberated” by the Soviet Army and becomes a de facto part of the totalitarian regime’s new eastern empire. I have friends who lived through this time and they speak of the absolute misery imposed by the Soviets with fear and repression. “Our world was a perpetual grey and lifeless.”
Then in January 1968, the First Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, Alexander Dubček, started to liberalize and democratize the country during something that was called the Prague Spring. Suddenly the country opened like a flower with color and joy and people started to feel how good life could be with their freedoms promoted and protected. But the Soviet authorities came to see these freedoms as seditious, as a covert campaign to break away from their empire.
In August 1968, the West watched with dismay as the combined forces of the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact countries massed on the border of Czechoslovakia. Then, on August 21, some 500,000 troops and tanks invaded the country, arrested the political leaders including Dubček, and occupied the capital. The epicenter of protest and dissent was Wenceslas Square in the heart of Prague, named after the same good king we sing about in the Christmas carol.
But as it did in 1938, the West turned its gaze away from the tragedy and Czechoslovakia was once again subsumed into the darkness of a totalitarian state. On that same day, August 21, the Soviets apparently forgot that they had an orchestra on tour in the UK, the USSR State Radio Symphony Orchestra with conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov and the great cellist Rostropovich as the soloist. And on that very night they were scheduled to give a concert as part of the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. The concerto was to be—ironically—the Dvorak.
I was at this performance as a very young 17-year old musician excited by the events seeming to swirl around me. I had never experienced anything like what I saw and heard that night. The Hall was packed and I was in the standing area just in front of the stage. The atmosphere was electric with the shock of the unfolding calamity. There were, of course, protestors who you can hear giving vent to their feelings in the recording of the concert available on YouTube. The musicians played as true professionals through the din and tumult, although there was complete silence during the Dvorak. Rostropovich was magnificent.
Five days later, there was another performance of the Dvorak Concerto. It had been put together quickly by Daniel Barenboim and the London Symphony Orchestra to raise relief funds for the Czech people. The concerto was to feature Barenboim’s new wife, Jacqueline Du Pré. The concert also took place at the Royal Albert Hall but during the day because of the BBC Prom scheduled that night.
In the late 1960s, there was an astonishing confluence of young musical gods who seemed to take the entire world by storm: Barenboim, Zubin Mehta (just appointed Music Director of the LA Phil, aged 28), violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman. But the most exciting and the most astonishing of this godly pantheon was undoubtedly Jacqueline Du Pré. Her personality, her ability to astonish and move an audience, and her sheer engagement with music were on a different plane. She was, albeit for a brief time, the greatest cellist in the world, someone that Rostropovich described as “the only cellist who could equal and overtake my own playing.”
So the audience gathered at the RAH in vast numbers drawn by the political cause and the musical promise of something truly remarkable. No protestors this time. And in this video recording, which was lost until very recently, we have all that and much more. Du Pré, at age 23, is at the height of her powers, finding nuances and colors in the concerto that no one had discovered before or since. She commands the audience in the hall and now, 50 years later in black and white and with less than perfect audio, she commands us, looking back through history at this extraordinary event.
At the end of this recording I confess I cast a tear. Then I watched the tribute to her made by Allegro Films for the BBC (see above) and there were more tears. I never knew Du Pré. I never worked with her. It was just her playing that I came to know and love. Perhaps I am being too romantic in my feelings and imposing upon her and the performance qualities and attributes that are more about me than the music. But I have listened to this performance more than once and my reactions seem right and appropriate. This is a moment in musical history that has been rediscovered, like a major archeological find, reminding us of a genius who could and still does, inspire us with music that comes to us straight from her soul, her Deep Song.
I’m grateful to my friend Paul Katz for encouraging me to write about this recording and his publishing my thoughts on his CelloBello website.