Obituary: Sidney Griller
Tuesday 23 November 1993
SIDNEY GRILLER was the leader of one of this century's most distinguished string quartets and the teacher and mentor of a whole generation of successful chamber ensembles.
Griller was born in 1911, the son of Jewish immigrants, and brought up in the East End of London, where his father kept a corner shop and bought him his first violin.
At the age of 13, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where his teachers were Hans Wessley and Editha Knocker. But undoubtedly the chief influence on him was the distinguished viola player Lionel Tertis who coached the fledgling Griller Quartet, which was founded in 1928, and who instilled a passion for the first Viennese School and a puritanical obsession for practice and detail that never left him.
Though there had been great European ensembles, English string quartets were traditionally ad hoc affairs. It was the Griller Quartet's destiny to change this. Their career blossomed with encouragement from the pianist grandes dames Myra Hess and Harriet Cohen and from a bevy of influential supporters who included Robert Mayer, Samuel Courtauld, Lady Pigott and even JB Priestley.
By 1931 the Griller Quartet had established a European reputation, but their big breakthrough came in January 1939 with a successful debut in the New York City Hall and a subsequent contract with NBC. No British quartet had ever made such an impression in the New World. Their repertoire, though firmly rooted in the classics, embraced a growing number of new works. They played Bax, Bliss, Cooke, Jacob, McEwen, Milhaud, Sessions, Rawsthorne, Schoenberg, Vaughan Williams and developed a particularly fertile relationship with Ernest Bloch.
During the war the quartet gave over 200 concerts a year as a special unit in the RAF. In 1949, they became the resident quartet at the University of California at Berkeley, a pioneering appointment which paved the way for many other chamber groups to have valuable campus associations.
In 1951, Sidney Griller was appointed CBE. Curiously for such an interdependent institution as a string quartet, only Griller received the honour. During the war it had been he who had held the rank of Sergeant to his colleagues mere Aircraftsmen and yet if ever a quartet displayed the true democratic spirit in performance it was the Griller. The list of colleagues they collaborated with reads like a musical Who's Who including Pablo Casals; the violists William Primrose and Max Gilbert; the pianists Clifford Curzon, Howard Ferguson, Louis Kentner and Hephzibah Menuhin; the clarinettists Frederick Thurston and Reginald Kell; the oboist Leon Goossens and Dennis Brain, the horn-player.
The legacy of their recordings provides eloquent witness to the mastery of their technique and the insight of their musicianship. Sidney Griller's playing combined an elegance of phrasing, a beauty of tone and sincerity that touched the heart, and his quartet set technical standards that inspired further generations. Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus Quartet has been just one of many successors to sing their praises.
After some partially successful personnel changes the quartet disbanded in 1963 and, following a brief sabbatical period, Sidney Griller returned to London where he began a second remarkable career as quartet guru. An appointment as visiting professor at the Irish Academy in Dublin was followed in 1964 by his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music, inviting him to teach chamber music. He spent over two decades sharing with literally hundreds of students the rigorous discipline of quartet life. Sometimes his microscopic insistence on accuracy, on pure intonation and absolute fidelity to the text would lead to a three-hour lesson that permitted only the endless dissection and reprise of a single bar's music. He was enormously generous with his time and during a period when I studied the Brahms Violin Concerto with him I virtually camped out on his musicroom floor.
The results of his teaching were remarkable and his chamber-music class spawned a series of young quartets, many of whom were destined for international careers. These included the Alberni, Bochmann, Coull, Fitzwilliam, Lindsay, Medici and Vanbrugh Quartets and individual members of many other ensembles.
In 1981 York University, where the Fitzwilliam were the Quartet in Residence, presented Griller with an honorary doctorate in recognition of his international contribution as both performer and teacher. He also gave regular chamber-music classes at the Yehudi Menuhin School and when he retired from the Royal Academy in 1986 he continued a busy life examining, representing the UK on the juries of international competitions and teaching. He gave popular masterclasses to the burgeoning chamber music department at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. It was characteristic of the man that only a week before his death and though very ill he insisted on, and enjoyed, giving a day's violin lessons to young students. His wife, Honor, was a tremendous support to him and it is possible that without her sacrifices and loving fortitude the Griller Quartet would not have flowered in the precious way it did. They were married in 1932, on Beethoven's birthday, and for the first 11 years of marriage, she looked after the two bachelors in the quartet (Jack O'Brien and Philip Burton) as well as her husband.
A dinner party chez Griller was always a special event, Honor the attentive hostess, Sidney so much the autocrat in lessons unbuttoning his collar and doing affectionate impressions of Arnold Schoenberg's distinctive eating habits.
Sidney Griller's many students will surely pass on his extraordinary vision of the integrity of the performer, the necessity for painstaking analysis, for beauty of sound and for musical courage in performance.
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