Music in the Round


In tribute to Peter Cropper

2nd Jun 2015 10:48
In tribute to Peter Cropper

Music in the Round pays tribute to its founder Peter Cropper

The world of classical music is paying tribute to Peter Cropper, leader of the world-renowned Lindsay String Quartet and visionary founder of Sheffield’s Music in the Round and the annual Sheffield Chamber Music Festival, who has died at the age of 69. 

On Classic FM, broadcaster John Suchet – who was sacked as second violin from a school quartet led by Peter - described him as “the driving force behind what I believe is the finest string quartet this country has ever produced.”  And BBC Radio 3’s Petroc Trelawney tweeted the “terrible news” of the death of a “great chamber musician.” 

The Daily Telegraph obituary praises him as the 'Mick Jagger of the string quartet' - full article here.

The Guardian says that his death 'robs us of one of the most imaginative presences in our musical lives. In his later years, that meant chamber music and founding and catalysing Sheffield’s brilliantly innovative Music in the Round chamber music series; but it’s his 40 years leading the Lindsay String Quartet that define his legacy to the musical world' - full article here.

Sheffield Telegraph tribute - here.

Sheffield-based concert pianist and scholar Peter Hill described him as “more than a very good musician, a visionary performer. When he played the late Beethoven String Quartets you knew he was worthy of the subject matter.”

And pianist Martin Roscoe, dedicated a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall in London with Tasmin Little to Peter, honouring the musician with whom he and cellist Moray Welsh played the great classical trio repertoire in both concert halls, theatres and any intimate space to which an audience ready to discover chamber music could be drawn.

Peter was a towering presence in Sheffield music. He and the rest of the Lindsay String Quartet - Ronald Birks, Robin Ireland and Bernard Gregor Smith – were given the Freedom of the City in 2009. He started Music in the Round, which now promotes concerts all over England as well as in Sheffield, in the Crucible Studio in 1984.

But he was also highly regarded throughout the classical musical world, both as a player producing best-selling CDs and as a teacher and competition judge. 

Supported by the then-chairman of the Crucible Theatre board, Tony Thornton, he was determined to “have chamber music in Sheffield on a regular basis.”  He launched it with a Beethoven Festival and the informality that was his trademark, wearing tee-shirts and addressing the audience with a seemingly casual mixture of anecdotes and musical insights derived from his passionate belief in the power of music to change people’s lives. “Tell a story,” was his insistent instruction to musicians.

After the Lindsay String Quartet retired in 2005, he continued as Artistic Director of Music in the Round and recruited – among others – violinist Benjamin Nabarro to be part of Ensemble 360, Music in the Round’s resident musicians.

He said Peter Cropper’s spirit would live on through everyone who knew him: “Peter has inspired me for almost 30 years; I was about 9 years old when I went to my first Lindsay quartet concert. His extraordinary way of communicating through music, and his joy and love for it, and of life, has had a profound effect on me, culminating in our performances together of Mozart quintets in Sheffield just two weeks before he died. He has left behind a priceless legacy which we are all now lucky to inherit.”

Angus Smith, Peter’s successor as Artistic Director of Music in the Round in 2009, commented: “It may strike some who had the joy of hearing Peter Cropper play as surprising, but one of my strongest images of him will always be of an impassioned man singing extracts of Beethoven and Haydn string quartets at me.

“We are fortunate that with modern technology we can keep him with us by listening to his extraordinary playing. But I have come to realise, in the several decades that I have been a performing musician, that his intangible gift as a supreme communicator and inspiration to others is truly rare.”

Peter himself always said that he had no intention of playing music for a living when he was 16 at UppinghamSchool – he had planned to be a barrister. “Then it dawned on me that actually performing music was what I loved doing most.

“The composers meant so much to me that I wanted to share this passion with other people. The only problem was that I couldn’t play the violin well enough. That’s when I decided I would have to do some serious practice.”

Always a mischief-maker, he said that in the National Youth Orchestra he was always being sent back to the back row of the violins for misbehaving. That was where he met his future wife, the distinguished violin teacher Nina Martin. They had two children, both professional musicians, and two grandchildren.

The Lindsay String Quartet took their name from Sir David Lindsay, vice-chancellor of KeeleUniversity where the Quartet was in residence, performing “in the round” at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke where director Peter Cheeseman became Peter’s “guru.” They pioneered a series of dramatized stories, commissioned from writers such as Berlie Doherty, Paul Allen and Rony Robinson, played in conjunction with string quartets.    

John Cowling, Chair of Music in the Round spoke about Peter’s musical legacy in Sheffield:

“it is unbelievably  shocking news that a man with such a massive personality and passion for music is no longer with us.   Without his inspiration and drive we would not have wonderful chamber music in Sheffield and Music in the Round would not exist.   Part of his legacy for us will surely be the richness of the musical experience that we can all enjoy, not only in this region but as Music in Round tours around the country.”

THE TIMES obituary:

Ebullient violinist who founded the Lindsay Quartet, which was renowned for its playing of Beethoven

Known principally as the founder and first violinist of the Lindsay Quartet, which he led for 40 years, Peter Cropper turned the string ensemble into the best-loved British quartet of the postwar period. Anyone who met Cropper could not help but be struck by his unfettered enthusiasm and his encyclopaedic knowledge of every Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven quartet and trio. He later started a chamber music organisation, Music in the Round, which brought performances to the smallest regional arts venues and encouraged audiences nationwide.

Full of bold ideas, funny and informal, he dressed always in open-toed sandals and insisted that the Lindsay Quartet wore T-shirts and chatted to their audience about the music, which Cropper did effortlessly. He described the quartet as “four amateurs. We did it because we loved it, and I think it came across. I don’t say it was always immaculate. Who wants perfection?”

His rough and ready performances could go over the top — he was once dubbed the “Mick Jagger” of the string quartet — but he connected with a wide audience. Although the quartet was known for its Beethoven repertory, their Bartók cycle was electrifying, and they made a connection with the 20th-century English composer Michael Tippett, who wrote his fourth and fifth quartets for the group. Cropper described the day the Lindsays played the fifth quartet to Tippett for the first time as “simply the greatest of my life. There he was, 3ft away . . . and by the tiniest gestures, an eyebrow here and there, you knew exactly what he wanted.”

Born in Southport, Lancashire, Peter Cropper came from a family of musicians. His grandfather was leader of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and his uncle was principal viola in the BBC Philharmonic. He took up the violin as a matter of course, won a music scholarship to Uppingham School at 13 and played in the National Youth Orchestra. He considered a future as a barrister until he had a Beethovenian epiphany in his late teens, as he explained to The Strad in 2009: “It was Beethoven who first inspired me to try to earn a living from playing music. I wanted to share his vision and his humanity with as many people as possible.”

The only obstacle then, he said with typical frankness, was that he couldn’t play the violin well enough: “That’s when I decided I would have to do some serious practice.” He studied at the Royal Academy of Music with David Martin, whose daughter, the violinist Nina, he had met at the National Youth Orchestra. The relationship blossomed. “They were the best dancers at every party,” recalled one fellow student. The couple were married in 1972.

He was still a student when he formed the Cropper Quartet for a competition in 1965 with the violinist Michael Adamson, the viola player Roger Bigley and the cellist Bernard Gregor-Smith, who, with Cropper, remained in the group for 40 years. At Keele University they changed their name to the Lindsay Quartet in honour of Keele’s founder, Lord Lindsay. Ronald Birks later replaced Adamson and Robin Ireland replaced Bigley.

Birks, then playing in the Northern Sinfonia, recalled that he was persuaded to join by Cropper’s “utterly infectious, consuming commitment to the composers, his unquenchable curiosity . . . we never did anything the same twice, ever”. Cropper also allowed each player their individuality. “I was never second violin,” Birks said, “I was another violinist.”

The same spontaneity became the hallmark of the quartet’s recordings, which numbered more than 50. As the critic Edward Greenfield remarked of their second complete Beethoven set in 2001: “They conveyed an intensity of expression hard to achieve in studio recordings . . . very different from the highly polished, super-streamlined quartets that the age of recording has helped to spawn.”

The Lindsays were soon enjoying an international touring schedule. On one occasion at the Finnish Kuhmo Festival, Cropper bounded up the steps to the stage after a concert and fell flat on his Strad, smashing it and earning the headline “Strad comes a cropper”.

In Corfu, he had gone out on a scooter with his son, Martin, but came off it on a mountain road, scraping skin off his arm. “There was no question of cancelling the concerts. Each morning he would go into the shower and groan loudly while he tried to bend his arm again,” his son recalled.

The Lindsays became quartet in residence at Sheffield University in 1972, and then Manchester University at the end of the decade. Cropper settled in Sheffield, where he and Nina brought up their two children. Martin is a violinist; Hazel is an oboist and conductor.

While sitting on the board of the Arts Council, he became aware of the need to develop audiences. He pioneered the idea of surrounding a string quartet with listeners and worked to commission a series of dramatised stories to be performed with the quartet. He took the idea to the Crucible Theatre’s studio, and began to realise his dream of having “chamber music in Sheffield on a regular basis”.

He founded Music in the Round, which began as a two-week Beethoven festival in 1984, followed by immersions in Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. It has since grown into a year-round international chamber music programme of 70 concerts and a touring network stretching from the Lake District to Portsmouth. The Lindsays would play facing one way in the first half and then the other. All visiting quartets, however distinguished, were required to do the same, which many found a challenge.

After any performance he would always be in the bar buying the first round of drinks. “He created such a loyal following because he behaved as if everyone was a friend,” said his son. “The Lindsays would be recognised in the supermarket.” When the quartet retired in 2005 their last piece was Beethoven. “In the end,” said Cropper, “Beethoven is the one I couldn’t live without, because he shares all the sh*t of life and all the glory of life, all the time. He’s more euphoric than anyone else, and more dirty than anyone else.”

Cropper then formed a piano trio with Martin Roscoe and Moray Welsh, and a string trio with Paul Watkins and James Boyd, which re-energised him. A gifted mentor and teacher, he set up the MA in String Quartet Performance at Sheffield University, gave masterclasses, and sat on many boards and juries, having an unerring nose for talent.

Cropper was a serious bon viveur, and his knowledge of wine almost matched that of Viennese quartets. He loved holing up with his family in his summer house in France and in the 17th-century farmhouse he had restored in Edale. He once said: “It’s a bit embarrassing when you turn up to rehearsals with cement on your hands.”

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