Pretty cello lady

You can find amazing things on YouTube, if you think to look for them.  The other day, I thought, "There can't be a video of Du Pré playing the Dvořák cello concerto, can there be?"  And here it is.

I don't know exactly how old I was when I discovered Jacqueline Du Pré, but I can't have been more than 12.  I was a sad pre-adolescent with a well-developed, if poorly-understood, sense for the tragic.  My mom had the record of Du Pré playing the Dvořák cello concerto, and listening to that amazingly passionate music while looking at the picture of the pretty cello lady hit me with a lot of feelings that I really didn't have any benchmark for measuring or experience in processing.  It was pretty overwhelming.  My mom noticed that I seemed to like the pretty cello lady, and with her characteristic disinterest in the inner lives of other people, she said, "Say, did you know she's dying?"

So I have always had COMPLICATED FEELINGS about this.  Just keep that in mind if you think I'm laying it on a little thick here.

This here is a diamond-level artifact.  Dvořák's cello concerto is one of the high-water marks of late 19th-century orchestral music.  It's a crowd-pleaser.  It's full of ridiculously beautiful and stirring passages, and the orchestration is perfect.  You can imagine him saying, gleefully, "Oh, you like this theme that the french horn is playing?  Just wait till you hear it on the cello."  It's gorgeous and stirring even before you get to see it in its full glory as a showcase for the soloist.

Most composers, Dvořák included, had dismissed the idea of a cello concerto, believing that the cello's booming low-end and scratchy high-end couldn't stand up to an orchestra.  It took Dvořák decades to change his mind, but when he did, he spent a full year getting it right.  Johannes Brahms, who attended the concerto's premiere in London in 1895, said something like, "If I'd known this was possible, I would have written one."

The result turns the cellist into a rock star.  (The glissando toward the end of the first movement is purely gratuitous.)  It's dramatic to watch any cellist play a difficult and fiery piece because everything the cellist does requires a combination of large and fine gestures.  Performing this piece is extremely physical even if the cellist is a large, muscular man like Mstislav Rostropovich.  But a skinny 23-year-old girl who's only a little bigger than her giant Stradivarian beast of an instrument?  She's a monster.

So yeah, enjoy pretty cello lady here.  She kicks all kinds of ass.  Something remarkable happens at the start of the third movement that I've never seen happen in a classical-music performance before, and it's pretty directly related to the ferocity of her ass-kicking.  I won't spoil it.

But there's more.

It's 1968.  Soviet tanks have just rolled into Czechoslovakia, crushing the Prague Spring just as they crushed the Hungarian Revolution 12 years earlier.  Not really knowing what else to do, the musical community in London decides to put on a performance of a great work by the most famous Czech composer as an expression of solidarity with and sympathy for the Czech people.  They're led by the brilliant young conductor of the moment, Daniel Barenboim, and the amazing ingenue cellist who converted to Judaism and married him in Jerusalem the year before.  (They got to Jerusalem, married, and left, and within a month the Six-Day War was underway.)  

Nobody yet knows that she has multiple sclerosis.  Nobody knows that her performing career will be over in five years.  Nobody knows that Czechoslovakia won't be under Soviet control forever.  (I have a friend whose family braved the barbed wire and machine guns to escape from Czechoslovakia into Austria in 1988, which put them in the historically awkward position of watching the Iron Curtain fall while they were still living in a refugee camp.)  Nobody has any idea how much the world is about to change.

For instance, Jacqueline Du Pré is not only the only woman on this stage, she is the only woman allowed on this stage.  In 1968, the LSO won't admit its first woman for another 7 years.  (To this day, the LSO no paragon of gender balance.)  What you'll see here is a totally normal sea of white guys.  Du Pré can dominate the scene as a cellist, but she still needs her husband's signature to apply for a credit card.

And just wait until you hear the announcers chatting!  Today, Received Pronunciation is a distant memory.  But in 1968, it's the only kind of speech permitted on the BBC.

Somewhat hilariously, the only clue you'll have in the video itself that it's 1968 is Daniel Barenboim's hair.  If not for that, this could have been made in 1958, or 1948.  But that hair is a portent.  A dumb-looking portent, to be sure, but a portent nonetheless.


  1. The LSO's gender count is not bad and is typical. Yes, I counted; emailing you the numbers.

    British orchestras were way ahead of American orchestras in admitting women, so I am a little surprised at how long it took the LSO.


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