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Peter Cropper’s A–Z of chamber music

In this article, first published at ChamberStudio in 2015, the late and much-missed first violinist of the Lindsays pulled no punches with his views about music


Martin Lovett – one of the best quartet players ever – said that it’s very easy to play chamber music. He explained that you sing the tune when you play the accompaniment and you sing the accompaniment when you play the tune. He said that by doing that he could make someone play exactly as he wanted them to. He’s absolutely right.


I didn’t start practising until I was 18, and I had a lot to make up. I think that’s why the quartet was successful for the four of us – because we were four amateurs, and amateurs love things much more than professionals. Hans Keller said that there isn’t such a thing as a professional quartet, because quartet people love playing quartets. We did it because we loved it, and I think it came across. I don’t say it was always immaculate. Who wants perfection? Perfection is sterile. We’re human beings.


You can’t compare Beethoven and Bach and say one is the greatest. Or Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Monteverdi, Purcell – they’re all at the pinnacle. Once somebody is great you can’t say one is better than the other. However, in the end Beethoven is the one I couldn’t live without, because he shares all the shit of life and all the glory of life, all the time. He’s more euphoric than anyone else, and more dirty than anyone else. The Grosse fuge is the greatest double fugue ever written, but more than that, it’s the story of life. He chose the fugue form because it’s the story of life the struggle of life, and as always, he ends triumphantly – only two of his works end up minor.


I don’t think people change colour like they used to. I think I have more colours in my ammunition chest than most and that’s by using different bow speeds, but also different angles of the fingers – upright if you want a hard sound, and when you want a special sound, more flat. And the bow varies from on top of the bridge to way over on the fingerboard.


Isn’t music really all about emotional communication? Isn’t that what life is all about? If you bake a cake, you don’t want to stuff your face with the whole lot, you want to share it. If you make anything, you want to share it with people.


The best compliment I ever had in my life was, ‘It doesn’t sound like you’ve got a violin under your chin’. Most violinists would hate that – they’d much rather hear, ‘You’re the best violinist I’ve ever heard.’ To me it was much better to hear them say the violin was like an extension of my hand.


I don’t think there’s such a thing as dynamics. There isn’t a forte, a piano, a crescendo, a sforzando, a fortissimo: they’re all emotions.


The secret is that if you want a note to be emotional or stressed, in the sense of having warmth, you do it on the note before it, not on the note. The note at the top of the phrase is always the longest note, metronomically, but you don’t stress the on the note which shows the passion, you do it on the note before it, aiming for the next note. The greatest musicians delay it the longest.

First violinists

I think nearly all first violinists are prima donnas. But in quartets it’s the person with the leading voice who leads, and that’s not always the first violinist, although obviously it is in a lot of Haydn and Mozart. If the first violinist doesn’t have a big personality it’s not going to work, but the four have to be as one – nobody can act like a diva. The dynamics of a string trio are completely different, though – everyone has to be a diva.

Historically informed performance

I think Haydn would have bought an Aston Martin. He would have preferred that to coming to England in a stagecoach. He was as sick as a dog on the Channel coming over. Can you imagine coming from Vienna on a stagecoach at five miles an hour? I think the researchers have done a terrific amount of good, but why do we want to play like they did hundreds of years ago? Boulez talked about whether we’d want to hear Stravinsky played as it was first played, when people didn’t know how to use the new sticks for the percussion, and the bassoonist couldn’t play any of it. Do you want to hear it like that now? Things change.


You have to start with imagination. For my final recital I started with the Bach G minor Sonata. I practised that first chord several thousand times. Sándor Végh told me that the first line is like a clothes line, with clothes pegs and washing hanging up in between. It’s a lovely idea.


You have to be able to play in tune and that means listening, which is the problem. Nobody wants to play out of tune, it’s just that they don’t listen.


It’s easy for me now because I’ve been doing this game for 50 years, so I feel fairly confident that I have an idea what Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn wanted.


You have to be your own doctor. Some people go on having lessons the whole time as a crutch. Practice is being your own doctor, diagnosing yourself. Are you doing what you want to do?


When I’m coaching a group and the players don’t seem to be taking my point on board I get one of them to come out and listen, and say, ‘Do you understand what I’m talking about?’ And they always agree and say, ‘Oh, I thought we were doing that.’


Too many second violinists, if they’re playing in octaves with the first violinist, play quietly. But to get the intonation good they need to play more. With any two players, the person playing the lower octave should be the loudest, so the other person can hear.

Quartet chemistry

I think Sigmund Nissel put it so well when he said, ‘A string quartet is like a bottle of wine. The cello is the bottle, the first violin is the label and the contents are the second violin and viola.’


There are things that you don’t have to rehearse, they just happen. It’s the things that don’t happen that you have to talk about. Try to do the whole rehearsal without anyone saying a word apart from ‘letter A’, or ‘bar 137’. Play something through a few times, and maybe say two or three things, such as ‘try it a little slower’, or ‘that seems to be over the fingerboard’, just the occasional point. It’s all about listening. In my experience if someone knows how a piece goes, they don’t change, anyway, even though they do in the rehearsal. We had a good example of this when we were playing the Brahms Piano Quintet with a Hungarian pianist and in the rehearsal he agreed to change things, but when it came to the concert he did exactly what he did in the first rehearsal.


What is my job as a mentor, when I teach? It’s to inspire people to do what they want to do. Everyone always thinks they’re doing that, but nobody is. But as soon as you ask them to sing something, they solve all the problems. The only way to sing in Mozart quartets is to go and hear one of his operas. Così fan tutte is the most stupid story you could think of, but Mozart brings cardboard cut-out figures to life, and it’s full of duos, trios, quartets and quintets – it’s perfect chamber music. Everyone’s singing, and when they sing, they have character.


The biggest secret of string quartets is that you don’t play louder when you have a solo – you play nearer the bridge. The others play with the same character and vivacity as you, but nearer the fingerboard.


Music is about communication. Our job is to tell a story that is written by Beethoven, Haydn or Schumann. How many concerts have you been to that have been truly great – ten, maybe five? And what makes them special? Every note means something to the player and they give you every note.

Technique Technique is the ability to do what your imagination demands. That’s all. It’s not about who can play fastest.


Someone did a PhD on the first movement of Beethoven op.131 and apparently our beat changed ten times as much as anyone else’s. Fischer-Dieskau said that metronomes should be banned and I totally agree with him. There isn’t a piece of music, except maybe Steve Reich, which has four equal beats. If it does, it’s bad. There are times when a composer is saying, ‘I want this to be absolutely tick-tock’ – Ravel was mad about clocks, for example, and perhaps conducting Haydn’s ‘Clock’ Symphony it has to be like that, but the tune doesn’t necessarily have to stick with it.


Urtexts have done a huge amount of harm, because people say, ‘That’s what Haydn wrote.’ It means that people don’t think about the music. For example, in the development section of Haydn’s op.20 no.2 the second violin has five lines of semiquavers with not a slur marked, but you can’t play five lines of semiquavers like that. So you need to use a bit of imagination.


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