The Yehudi Menuhin School is famous for producing world class soloists, but one teacher also provided the inspiration for a generation of chamber musicians. Johanna McWeeney talks to former pupils about their memories of Peter Norris and how his teaching influenced their musicianship and careers.

Peter Norris first taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School in 1964. His musical idealism expanded the horizons of many pupils whose experiences at the school were not always happy. He stretched the children far beyond their perceived technical limitations by guiding them towards a profound understanding of music and encouraged every student to find their own musical voice. Peter retired last summer aged 71 after contracting PSP, a degenerative illness related to Parkinson’s disease. His legacy is evident in chamber music throughout the world.

Krysia Osostowicz, leader of the Dante Quartet and pupil at the school from 1969 to 1978, says, ‘People had very mixed experiences at the Menuhin School. Mine happened to be very good, but there were all sorts. Recently, I was guest leading a concert with the Maggini Quartet, two of whom also went to the school, and we were reminiscing about the things we liked and the things we didn’t like. The one thing that we completely agreed on was the influence that Peter Norris had on all of us. Maybe it was not a coincidence that so many of us from that generation turned into quartet players.’

Susie Mészáros, violist with the Chilingirian Quartet and pupil from 1970 to 1978, explains, ‘Chamber music is not just about one person, it’s about collaboration, interplay and dialogue. That’s what Peter taught us, and that’s why so many of us went into chamber music.’

‘I think it’s fair to say that you can generally spot a Menuhin School graduate by the degree of communicability in chamber music playing,’ adds Simon Parkin, senior lecturer at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) and pupil at the school from 1967 to 1974. ‘They always seem to be alert; they’re always listening to everyone else.’

Peter was born in Montreal to a musical family. His father, a New Zealand violinist, was conductor of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in the 1920s. Peter came to England on a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he studied piano and composition.

He joined the Menuhin School almost by accident: His wife, Margaret, who Menuhin knew, was to teach violin there, and Peter was asked to give classes in music theory and harmony. His extraordinary musicianship saw his role develop, and before long he had started the orchestra and was coaching chamber music and teaching music appreciation, music history and dictation. He spent his first five summers immersed in training with the composer Nadia Boulanger and brought musicians such as Hans Keller and Michael Tippett to work with the children.

‘He was the Menuhin School, musically,’ says Michal Kaznowski, cellist with the Maggini Quartet. ‘We thought music revolved around Peter.’

David Angel, second violinist with the Maggini’s and founder pupil of the school in 1963, agrees. ‘As I got older, he just became the musical inspiration of the place for me. He was a really fantastic musician, the best musician there apart from Menuhin himself. His musical ideas and his devotion were all consuming, yet he was the shyest, most humble man you could imagine – very much in the background.’

In 1980, Peter was appointed director of music, but left the school in 1987, returning on a part time basis to coach chamber music. In 1998, the current music director, Malcolm Singer, invited him back to teach at the school.

‘Peter’s real legacy is the chamber music,’ says Singer. ‘He’s a very special man and a very great teacher.’

David Angel – 2nd violin, Maggini Quartet

‘I wouldn’t be thinking of music in the same way if it hadn’t been for Peter. I certainly would have very few happy memories of the musical side of the Menuhin School if it weren’t for him. I would only be left with the later master-classes that I had with Menuhin himself.

As a small kid I was terrified of Peter, because his devotion to music was such that one felt continually naughty. He was a young Canadian, a musical genius, quite exceptional and didn’t really understand small boys in short pants with muddy knees. On the other hand, he immediately showed a great sense of humour.

He was passionate about wanting to help the pupil discover for themselves how wonderful music was. It was never to come from him – it was for him to point, to suggest, to ask the questions. There was a terrible amount of favouritism at that time. You were judged. You weren’t a human being; you were a walking violin, a young violinist or a young cellist or viola player or pianist. Musically, I didn’t have a happy time, apart from Peter. He made me realise that music was worth it. He sustained the passion and ignited it when it might have gone in my early adolescent years.’

Susie Mészáros – viola, Chilingirian Quartet

‘Every single Sunday we sang more than one Bach chorale; exquisite, perfect music which really does put any of these Victorian hymns totally in the shade. Peter’s principle was that you don’t bring people gradually up to great music; you start them with great music.

He was extremely fair with absolutely everybody. It didn’t matter whether you were the fastest fiddler in the west or just bumbling along doing alright, he wanted you to discover the things that he felt he’d discovered and loved. He wasn’t judgemental about anybody’s differences. He helped many people to develop who were not fantastic virtuosi or child prodigies.

Musical expression was not something we were ever given by Peter. We were given the tools. He taught us that it isn’t possible to be musical without technique. I don’t mean that one has to be virtuosic, but a technique of spacing what you’re doing, finding the sound, being in the right place. He gave us the grammar to construct our poetry. This understanding means you always have something to fall back on: You’re not suspended from a great technique or a great perfection; you’re floating above a very solid basis. It’s like dancing on a strong floor. It gives you freedom.’

Krysia Osostowicz – leader, Dante Quartet

‘When I work with people who have learned with Peter Norris, the big thing we tend to have in common is the harmonic and structural awareness.  Without that, you can still play perfectly well, but you’re not having the same conversation. Suppose you were to compare a string quartet by Beethoven to one of the great Shakespeare plays. As the director of the play, you’d have trouble working with actors who didn’t know whether they were in the middle of the story or the beginning of the story, or who didn’t know what it meant when a particular thing happened. Peter helped us discover that technical understanding of how music is put together. He communicated to us, through his approach to chamber music, the fascination, the importance of the notes on the page. He wasn’t saying, “Play this well so that people will admire you,” he just kept getting us to focus on understanding the notes, and I think that has given me the strength to be a convincing musician.’

Simon Parkin – senior lecturer RNCM

‘Peter was an enormous influence on lots of musicians. He is probably the most complete, idealistic teacher that I’ve ever come across. The good thing about that is that it’s so pure – all his standards were absolute – there was no compromise on the musicality of what was  required. I once had a direct fifth, not even a consecutive fifth, in a harmony exercise, and he went completely ballistic for about a week. I thought it was sort of ridiculous at the time, but to have that degree of commitment when other people would just sort of shrug their shoulders and let it pass…

My piano teacher at the time was quite restrictive, whereas Peter just kind of liberated everyone. He let me play a Mendelssohn D minor trio at about the age of 11, and my piano teacher would never have given me that. His expectations of people were very high all the time and a lot of people responded well by rising to them. Peter knew no limits; he’d just stretch you and stretch you.’

Michal Kaznowski – cellist, Maggini Quartet

‘I got one good report in three years at the Menuhin School and that was from Peter. Special music schools are very strange places; they have some extraordinarily talented students who produce amazing results, but those who aren’t so able can have a very horrible time examining their talent levels at the age of 14 or 15 when that sort of examination can be ruinous to your self esteem. There’s a lot of anxiousness and unhappiness and Peter didn’t like that. The prevailing attitude was not to treat children as intelligent beings. You essentially instructed them. You didn’t give them any means, you just said, “It goes like this, you play loudly, you play softer, you play faster, you play in tune, you play nicely, you play well,” and Peter would say, “Ah, but this is C minor. Does it have the same feeling of key as C major? If it doesn’t, what do you do to emphasise that? What do you do to show it’s a different key?” He’d be really challenging you.

Peter provided the high-end inspiration. You have to have that. You’ve got to see, when you look for the moon, you might see the top of the building or as far as the clouds, but Peter showed us the view to the moon.

© Johanna McWeeney