The Transition from Hands To Mouth of Jacqueline Du Pre

Jacqueline du Pre Pic

Photo Credit: Jacqueline du Pre on the cover of her Dvorak Cello Concerto in B Minor album with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenbom (who was also her husband), 1971, EMI Records: amadeusrecord/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0

“Well, that just means I’ve had to use more my mouth than my hands.” – Jacqueline du Pre (in the 1980 interview, responding to the interviewer’s observation that she has become more “articulate” over the years)

A while back I wrote about a dream I had which I felt was about the struggle I was having at the time (soon after the release of my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories) with my writing voice and anxiety. Voice is a very real concern to many writers because without it, their books become generic stories indistinguishable from others in the millions published every year. Even in genres with the heaviest expectations in terms of what readers want and like, the voice of the individual writer is what makes his or her work stand out among the rest.

I never really thought about other artist (like painters, musicians, and actors) having a voice, at least, not in the way that writers do. I’ve always thought of it more in terms of unique style, perspective, and outlook. But a while back, I read Gabor Mate’s When The Body Says No: Understanding The Stress-Disease Connection which talks about the connection between the physical body and the spiritual self. In one chapter, Mate uses the example of the brilliant cellist Jacqueline du Pre. The scars from du Pre’s childhood made it difficult for her to communicate emotionally to an outside world so her mode of communication became her music. Du Pre’s identity became interlocked with her widowed mother so that she could not find her own voice (metaphorically) in the kind of autonomy that is usually encouraged in children as they mature:

“Jackie’s relationship with her mother became one of symbiotic dependence from which neither party could free herself. The child was neither allowed to be a child nor permitted to grow up to be an adult.” (Mate, p. 23)

I know from personal experience how this kind of symbiotic relationship with a parent or both parents can suppress the child’s voice because, without the space to explore his or her own beliefs, emotions, ideas, and thoughts separate from the parents, his or her voice cannot emerge. So it’s not a surprise that du Pre’s oppressed voice led to bashfulness and complacency:

“Jackie was a sensitive child, quiet and shy… She was said to have been placid, except when playing the cello… She presented a pleasant and compliant face to the world.” (Mate, p. 23)

This is something else I can identify with. I have spoken often about how the oppressive, isolated childhood I had with well-meaning but emotionally absent parents made me generally a shy and fearful child, determined not to “make waves”, confined emotionally and spiritually to strive to be the sweet, tamed little girl my parents wanted me to be. In this way, it was a relief for me to discover writing at the age of fourteen, as writing became the voice I didn’t have where my own beliefs and identity separate from my parents could take shape.

This self-trained placidity and shyness in du Pre can clearly be seen in a 1980 interview, made seven years before her death of the devastating disease multiple sclerosis. I couldn’t help but observe how du Pre kept a pleasant smile planted on her face during the entire interview, her eyes wide as she spoke as if she were trying to keep herself calm and mild. I noticed how the interviewer lost patience with her slow, stilted responses and long silences and, I felt, sometimes resorted to condensation. For example, the interviewer reminded her that in an earlier talk they had in 1967, she told him all about her first concert at the age of fifteen. When du Pre tells him that she doesn’t remember it, he continues to insist she told him all about it. The tone and attitude that he displays is one that would probably make most people react. But du Pre never lost her temper or spoke sharply to him. She maintains her pleasant smile (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this situation).

Because du Pre’s voice had been suppressed, words became the enemy for her. Mate comments on how “Jackie [du Pre] always had difficulty expressing herself in words” (p. 23). In this way, “Jackie’s direct means of emotional expression had been stifled early on [so] the cello became her voice” (Mate, p. 24). Using art as a way to express emotions is something I’ve discussed often in my blog posts and this doesn’t only apply to writing. For du Pre, music was her emotional outlet. In her prime, she created a image of herself as a passionate, almost manic virtuoso, completely the opposite of her more quiet, reserved self. In fact, du Pre’s performances were likened more to a rock concert than a classical music performance:

“Unlike her private persona, her stage presence was completely uninhibited: hair flying, body swaying, it was more typical of rock ’n’ roll flamboyance than of classical restraint.” (Mate, p. 22)

It was this unrestrained passion on stage that made du Pre connect with her audience. Communication with an outside world is one of the main reasons why I write and it was the primary joy that du Pre got from performing. A friend of du Pre described her elation when she first came on stage in relating to an audience through her music:

“‘It was as if until that moment she had in front of her a brick wall which blocked her communication with the outside world. But the moment Jackie started to play for an audience, that brick wall vanished and she felt able to speak at last. It was a sensation that never left her when she performed.’” (as quoted in Mate, p. 24)

This makes sense because, as a naturally shy person, performing in front of an audience would probably have mortified her had she not been able to transform it into something communicative, perhaps even lose herself in conveying the love of music to an outside world. So it’s no surprise that “[h]er communication with audiences… ‘was quite breathtaking and left everyone spellbound.’” (as quoted in Mate, p. 22)

Mate believed the fact that the cello became du Pre’s voice was precisely what led to her emotional hardships and was perhaps even related to her MS diagnosis. He insists “Jacqueline du Pré’s cello voice remained her only voice” (p. 25) and because she never really found her own voice outside of her music, this took an emotional and physical toll on her. In 1971, at the peak of her popularity and success, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and sadly, only a few years later, her condition forced her to quit playing and turn to teaching and other interests to fill the void.

I think it is significant that du Pre’s struggles with the written word lessened when she stopped playing. It almost seems as if she came to some kind of peace with the written word. As the quote from the 1980 interview above illustrates, when du Pre became more restricted bodily because of her illness, her mode of expression turned to the written word, from her hands to her mouth. The interviewer asked her what is in the future and she responded that, besides continuing to teach, she would be working on some lyrical pieces, emphasizing the fact that these pieces would include words. This seems a major change for a woman who admitted that early in life she never did well with words. The interviewer noted this change as well. He commented how he felt du Pre’s interest in words and literature had grown over the years and she didn’t deny this was true. Ironically, he then asked her if she was able to read and she answered that she must have someone read to her or she listened to cassettes (this was way before the birth of DVD and internet streaming). I admire the fact that even when her illness made working with words difficult for her, she still managed to transform them in the last years of her life (and the fact that she spoke carefully and slowly with silences made her thoughtful responses appealing and important to me than if she would have been, like many people during interviews, maybe a little too wordy and chatty). I like to thin she found a place for her voice in the words that had betrayed her in the past.

Works Cited

Mate, Gabor M.D. When The Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003. Kindle digital file.


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