The term "to play second fiddle" is commonly taken to indicate inferiority. There was certainly nothing inferior in the playing of Siegmund Nissel, who was second violin in the Amadeus Quartet, the celebrated string quartet founded in London just after the Second World War. Nissel was not only a very accomplished musician in his own right but he was also greatly respected as a teacher.
Siegmund (or "Siggi") Nissel was born to Jewish Viennese parents in Munich in 1922 and showed a remarkable talent for the violin at the age of six. When he was nine, the family moved back to Vienna and he had lessons with Max Weissgarber. But as the persecution of the Jews grew more sinister, in 1938 his parents decided to send their son to a safe country. Nissel was only 16 when he was put on one of the last trains leaving Austria for the UK. He once told me how agonising it was to witness the parents parting from their children, knowing they might never see them again, and also for the youngsters facing a completely unknown future. It was a memory he never forgot.
When the Second World War broke out, the refugees automatically became enemy aliens. In 1940, the British Government decreed that all enemy aliens over the age of 18 should be interned; Nissel was sent to the Isle of Man where, by a twist of fate, he met another violinist, Peter Schidlof, who was to become a close friend for life. They were later to meet up with yet another violinist, Norbert Brainin, who had been transferred from a camp in Shropshire. The three spent a good deal of time making music together, before being released under the special category of "distinguished artists" (which at the time they were not).
Brainin introduced the others to the celebrated violinist and teacher Max Rostal, and all three became his students. By a further stroke of fate, another of Rostal's students was the violinist Suzanne Rozsa, who was married to the British cellist Martin Lovett. Brainin, Nissel, Schidlof and Lovett became great friends and began playing together in their spare time, meeting in each other's houses. Although the four players were all in some form of employment, they would still manage to meet to play for the sheer pleasure of making music.
By 1946 Brainin, aged 23, had a sizeable repertoire at his disposal. He had been playing sonatas and concertos and had achieved quite a reputation as a soloist. But he decided he would prefer to play in a string quartet, and asked the others if they would like to form one. Schidlof by now had forsaken the violin in favour of the viola so they had the right ensemble. The four got along well, the chemistry between the friends working to great advantage. By the beginning of 1947 they began making plans for a Wigmore Hall recital.
It was Nissel who came up with the name Amadeus. He thought that it was appropriate that the quartet should have a "neutral" name, rather than taking the name of the leader. (The four had given a performance as the Brainin Quartet, at Dartington International Summer School in July 1947). The other members were unsure about the suitability of Amadeus, with its direct association with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but Nissel was adamant.
With the financial support of generous friends in the profession, including Imogen Holst, who gave them £100, they went ahead with the arrangements for their first professional appearance. The Wigmore Hall recital took place in January 1948 and was a sell out, with hundreds turned away at the door. Although the press reviews were mixed, as far as the audience were concerned it was an unqualified success. After the concert the quartet was visited by Mrs Emmy Tillet – representing one of the most important musical agencies in the business – saying she would like to see them the following morning. The Amadeus Quartet was born.
With the help of Ibbs and Tillet the ensemble were inundated with offers, their first engagement being with the BBC. During uninterrupted years of success they played in concerts, festivals and master classes in almost every country in the world and made hundreds of recordings, including the complete quartets of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. They also performed works by Tippett, Bartók and other 20th century composers and gave the first performance of Benjamin Britten's Third Quartet, written specially for them, in December 1976.
In 1983 the four members of the group were given honorary doctorates from London University presented by the Princess Royal. The following year they performed works by Haydn and Mozart at a concert in aid of the Royal College of Music Centenary Appeal at Kensington Palace in the presence of the Prince and Princess of Wales.
One of the decisions the four had made right at the beginning was that if one member left the ensemble or died, they would not continue. After Schidlof's sudden death in 1987, the group disbanded and the three remaining members concentrated on chamber music and teaching, holding posts at the Royal Academy of Music.
Nissel was known as an excellent teacher. "The prime objective for me when working with an ensemble is to lead the group to a fuller understanding and feeling for what the music is saying.
Then, and only then, can I begin to suggest how to communicate the music to an audience. To succeed in this I try to inspire, promote, cajole, argue for, enthuse, persuade, yes even occasionally throw in the full weight of my 40 years' experience with the Amadeus Quartet. In this exciting endeavour I allow myself any means at my disposal; demonstrating with or without my violin; singing; gestures; conducting and moving or dancing about.
I feel that I have succeeded in teaching a reasonably gifted ensemble only if it is capable of learning a new work or if it has become independent of its teacher and is no longer dependent on continual outside instruction. It is a tremendous thrill to feel and see the smile of recognition of a group or an individual when it has truly understood the significance of a particular point or moment.
Nissel was the practical operator in the Amadeus group. It was he who sorted out the business problems and took care of contracts and the like. But there was considerable anxiety when, in his late forties, he developed a brain tumour. However, it was successfully removed in 1960, and he survived, only to then undergo a heart bypass.
As a man Siggi Nissel was kind and courteous, but he was also an excellent judge of human nature. Well liked by his fellow musicians and his pupils, he was above all a family man, proud of his wife, son and daughter and three grandchildren. He was appointed OBE in 1970, and received honorary doctorates from York University and the Royal Academy of Music.
Siegmund Walter Nissel, violinist: born Munich 3 January 1922; OBE 1970; married 1957 Muriel Griffiths (one son, one daughter); died London 21 May 2008.
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