Obituary: Sidney Griller

Sidney Aaron Griller, violinist: born London 10 January 1911; Leader, Griller String Quartet 1928-63; served RAF 1940-45; CBE 1951; married 1931 Honor Linton (one son, one daughter); died London 20 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk