Known principally as founder of the legendary Lindsay Quartet, which he led for 40 years, he also devoted himself to nurturing a new generation of string quartets, and, through his radical chamber music organisation in Sheffield, Music in the Round, developed audiences for the art form nationwide.
Anyone who met Peter could not help but be struck by his warmth, humour and unfettered enthusiasm both for life, and for music. He was full of bold ideas, funny and informal, dressed always in open-toed sandals, whatever the weather, with every Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven quartet and trio alive in his head.
Born in Southport, Lancashire, into a family of musicians (his grandfather was leader of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and his uncle 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’d met at the National Youth Orchestra. The relationship blossomed – ‘They were the best dancers at every party’ recalls one fellow student – and resulted in marriage in 1972.
He was still a student when he formed the Cropper Quartet for a competition in 1965, originally Cropper, Michael Adamson, violist Roger Bigley and cellist Bernard Gregor-Smith, who, with Cropper, remained for 40 years. They became Leverhulme Scholars at Keele University in 1967, at which point the name changed to the Lindsay Quartet in honour of Keele’s founder, Lord Lindsay. They continued to study with Alexander Moszkowsky of the Hungarian Quartet at the Royal Manchester College, where Ronald Birks had also trained, so when he replaced Adamson as second violin in 1971 he was familiar with their approach. The only further personnel change came in 1985, when Robin Ireland replaced Bigley on viola.
Birks, then playing in the Northern Sinfonia, recalls the moment he decided to join what was then already a celebrated quartet: ‘It was Peter’s utterly infectious, consuming commitment to the composers, his unquenchable curiosity. We all felt we were on a journey, there was always more to discover. We never did anything the same twice, ever. He was an ideas man, he always told a story.’
Spontaneity and expressive intensity became hallmarks of the quartet’s recordings (which numbered over 50, mainly on the ASV label), with reviewers picking up on Cropper’s feisty, no-holds-barred approach as leader. As Edward Greenfield remarked of their visionary 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.’ Birks puts the quartet’s longevity down to a shared love of the music, and Peter’s ability to allow each player their individuality: ‘I was never second violin, I was another violinist.’ Cropper recently observed they were ‘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?’
Performances were sometimes rough and ready, and Cropper could go over the top – once dubbed the ‘Mick Jagger’ of the string quartet – but his imaginative energy connected with a wide audience. Though Viennese classics were central, their Bartók cycle at the Wigmore Hall was electrifying, and they made a connection with Michael Tippett, who wrote his fourth and fifth quartets for the group.
The Lindsays were soon enjoying an international touring schedule. On one occasion at the Finnish Kuhmo Festival, Peter bounded up the steps to the stage after a concert and fell flat on his Strad, smashing it and earning the headline ‘Strad comes acropper’. On another, in Corfu, he had gone out on a scooter ride with his son, Martin, and came off it on a mountain road, scraping all the 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,’ recalls Martin Cropper.
The Lindsays became quartet in residence at Sheffield University in 1972, and then Manchester University in 1977. Cropper settled in Sheffield, where he and Nina brought up two children, Martin, a violinist and now director of Sheffield Academy of Music, and Hazel, an oboist and conductor.
Despite the demands of full-time quartet life, Cropper sat on the board of the Arts Council and became aware of the need for audience development. He pioneered the idea of surrounding a string quartet with listeners while still at Keele University, working with director Peter Cheeseman at Stoke’s Victoria Theatre. The two commissioned a series of dramatized stories performed with a quartet. He took the idea to the Crucible Theatre’s studio in Sheffield, and, supported by its Chairman Tony Thornton, began to realize his dream of having ‘chamber music in Sheffield on a regular basis.’ He considered it outrageous that the fourth largest conurbation in the UK had no resident ensemble. Music in the Round began as a heady two-week Beethoven Festival in 1984, followed by immersions in Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and has grown into a year-round international chamber music programme of 70 concerts, an educational operation and a touring network that stretches from the Lake District to Portsmouth. It was Cropper’s ambition to bring musicians of the highest calibre to small arts centres and eclectic spaces where there would otherwise be no chamber music.