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Quartet In Residence

By Nicholas P. Lafkas


Outside, the noise of scurrying students on the Berkeley campus during the noon hour were lost in the blended euphony which filled the audience-packed amphitheatre in California Hall. Students and faculty members sat or stood in quiet reflection, listening to a musical performance by the Griller Quartet, internationally renowned string ensemble and the University of California's first Quartet in Residence.

When the last note of the composition had been drawn, the audience remained silent for a moment; then it began an applause which continued even after the musicians had packed away their instruments.

Sidney Griller, first violinist and leader of the quartet of the quartet, turned again and bowed appreciatively, as did the other members of the quartet: Jack O'Brien, second violinist; Philip Burton, violist; and Colin Hampton, cellist.

The response at California Hall that noon was as enthusiastic as any the quartet had received in the great concert halls of Europe, at Buckingham Palace, the Potsdam Conference and New York City's Town Hall. For that matter, it was as enthusiastic as that which they'd received in the barns, inns, saloons, corn exchanged and school auditoriums in which they'd performed during their early, formative years.

The Griller have played together for 21 years without interruption; longer than any other contemporary quartet in the world. Today, with a solid reputation in the musical world, the members of the quartet like to reflect on those early days of endurance, persistence, hardship and financial strain.

"We were very young and very, very rash, you know," says Griller. "No one in his right mind would have picked a year like 1929 to form a chamber music ensemble. But, being young, we went ahead."

Griller, O'Brien, Burton and Hampton met while students in their teens at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Their common interest in playing quartet music attracted the attention of Lionel Tertis, viola virtuoso and professor at the Academy, who wanted them to accomplish what he, during his lifetime, had been unable to do --- organize a quartet that would stick together. The organizer of several male quartets, Tertis had been repeatedly disappointed when they ultimately broke up. Thinking that females might prove more reliable he turned to organization of girl quartets. One of these groups looked promising. They stuck around to play all 84 Hayden Quartets, right in a row. But, following the conclusion of that concert series, two of the girls quit to join up with an American swing band. Tertis returned to male quartets and, most hopefully, to Sidney Griller.

Griller remembers that "Tertis was very  kind to us. I also remember," he continues, "that I was thrown out of his class three times."

Tertis taught the quartet for 18 months at the Academy, most of which time he spent in trying to persuade the boys to launch seriously on their musical careers. His urgings were clinched one evening when the Grillers heard the famous Pro Arte Quartet play Revel and Debussy at the London Museum. "Their playing was so superb, "Griller recalls," and they derived such a pleasure out of it, that we determined to stick it out no matter what."

Like most students they had very little money and no financial backing. First of all, they would need a house with as economical a rent as possible. They found it at Pagham Beach in the form of three abandoned railroad cars. Two of these served as living and dining wings and the third was transformed into a rehearsal room. the rent, when they were able to afford it, came to $2 per week. This became the Griller's summer training quarters. During the warm months they lived on canned goods, sparingly rationed, and practiced on an average of 10 hours daily.

In order to sustain themselves financially, they took a theater job in London, playing for a show which starred Beatrice Lillie. Following this they found employment with a new show which featured "The Co-optimists," a vaudeville group. During the Co-op rune Griller and Burton went to Sir Henry Wood's Orchestra to play background music for the first British talkie movies, while O'Brien and Hampton stayed with the Co-op group.

Late at night, following the performances, the four boys would meet at a coffee stall for "vile coffee and sausages that used to burn our insides out." Here, also, they counted their money after each payday.

"Hampton and I would produce our $32," O'Brien says, "while Burton and Griller would lay out the hundreds they'd earned while playing for the talkies."

When they had earned enough money for future subsistence the Grillers quit their jobs and determine to get down to the intensive practice they needed to become a reputable string quartet. From that day on, they have never accepted independent engagements. Financially, this rule worked a hardship; artistically, it was the only possible way to preserve intact the group's ideal of an absolutely homogenous chamber music ensemble.

The first thing they did was buy a Buick sedan. Next they moved out of their railcar suite and took a house in St. Albans, which had proper heating facilities for the cold months which lay ahead.

"Our entrance into St. Albans was very good," Hampton recalls, smiling mischievously. Griller laughs: "it's a cathedral city about 20 miles out of London; very quiet, you know. We arrived there on November 5, on Guy Fawkes Night, which is somewhat comparable to your July Fourth. Upon entering we went to the nearest flower bed, planted as much ammunition in it as possible, and blew it to smithereens. A lady nearby turned to us and said, 'You can't do that!' Burton, who was 20 and the eldest of our group, shrugged his shoulders and stoically answered. 'But we are'."

"We had a frightful reputation in St. Albans," Griller continues. "They thought we were monsters. We'd shut ourselves up all day practicing and then come out at night to release our youthful energies."

"Of course," O'Brien joins, "we did do some rather strange things at times --- like building model airplanes during the day and then launching them from our balcony at midnight by candlelight."

"And sitting all night talking about everything under the sun," Griller adds.

"None of which made any sense," Burton remarks.

"And do you remember that terrible Port wine: We'd long ran out of money for decent liquor. The only thing we could afford was the kind of Port wine you buy for 50 cents a bottle and should use for nothing else except cooking and polishing the furniture. Sometime we'd play an opera like Tosca for into the night, while sipping on this horrible wine."

"By three in the morning we thought we were playing Tosca masterfully," Burton adds.

The Griller remained four years at St. Albans, practicing daily and giving concerts whenever and wherever possible. During that time the trades-people of the village, who had long decided that the boys were not monsters, gave them every financial assistance possible. Even the banker gave them enormous credit because he was impressed one day when they brought in a check for $48 from the British Broadcasting Company. People in the village, who liked good music as well as they liked the boys personally, saw them through their financial stresses. Today these persons are lifetime honorary members of the Quartet's audience wherever they are playing.

By now the Grillers' fame was beginning to spread across England. Their early concerts were given in barns and corn exchanges, in saloons, inns and in small towns where there were no concert halls and where the people had never attended a concert. "We played for any crowd and for any price," Griller says.

In 1932 the Quartet moved from St. Albans to London because "it cost too much to commute." Shortly thereafter their reputation as a talented string ensemble increased and they were soon performing all over England, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Scandinavia and Holland. Their concerts in the decade after after their founding totaled nearly a thousand in Europe alone.

On February 5, 1939, the Quartet made its first American appearance in New York City's Town Hall. "We realized that this debut could be our turning point," Griller says. "When arrived in New York quite nervous and quite heavily in dept, both conditions which had, by now, become familiar habit patterns with us."

The Quartet gave an inspiring and talented performance at Town Hall. If audience reaction were any measure of success, the Grillers were made. But ten years of performing had taught them to be realists. They returned to their hotel and awaited the verdict of the press which, pleasant enough, coincided with that of the audience. Following their New York success, the Quartet was promptly engaged for 60 concerts on a nationwide tour, after which they returned to England. They were about to embark on a second American tour in 1940 when the war changed their plans.

Sponsored by their commanding officer, the Quartet joined the Royal Air Force as a group and received the unprecedented designation of "Official String Quartet of the British Air Forces." As part of their war work they played as many as 227 concerts a year, both for British and American servicemen. They were also permitted to do some civilian concerts which included a performance for the Queen in Buckingham Palace and several appearances at the National Gallery and in Wigmore Hall.

While in the R. A. F., they were also engaged to play for President Truman, Churchill, Stalin, and their chief of staff, at the Potsdam Conference on July 26, 1945.

"That occasion was quite eventful," Griller says, "President Truman played the piano for us." The Grillers describe the President's playing as charming. "Also, that night, the Soviet Union announced that it would join the United States in all-out war against Japan. No reporters were allowed inside the Conference and we were sworn not to repeat the announcement.

"I remember walking out past the reporters, feeling quite important. Funny thing about keeping a secret --- if someone else knows you have a secret, you won't tell it. Only when someone doesn't know you're keeping a profound secret will you be inclined to spill it."

Upon their discharge from the R. A. F. in 1945, the members of the Quartet resumed playing on the Continent and in England, performing to capacity houses and winning continuous praise from the critics.

In 1947 they returned to the United States for their first post-war tour. At Town Hall they performed Ernest Bloch's Quartet No. 2 and Mozart's Quartet in G Major.  Concerning the concert Newsweek commented: "Throughout, the four men played with watch-like precision and complete unity of communication and interpretation." The New York Times summed it up as "A concert which advance nothing but highly significant music, masterfully communicated." Musicologists, familiar with the manner in which Town Hall performances are reviewed by the toughest critics in the world, were struck on the occasion by the careful, measured style in which every New York critic praised the Griller Quartet.

Following the Town Hall concert they again toured the United States and made their Bay Area debut in Wheeler Hall that same year.

Appointed lecturers in music on the Berkeley campus in July, 1948, the Quartet now divides its time between teaching string ensemble at the University during the spring semester, and giving coast-to-coast concerts during the rest of the year. They are also engaged for several Bay Area performances during the spring season.

To date, the members have performed in every state but Montanan, which they hope to visit in the near future. On the occasion of their entrance into the 47th sate, the Grillers disembarked cheerfully and decided to celebrate their entry, only to find that they had stepped into a dry state. "They didn't even have any Port wine," says Burton.

Touring the country pleases the Grillers and, after 21 years of constant moving about, they have become seasoned travelers.

"When we were younger we would occasionally get worked up about the things that happened to us while traveling," Hampton says. "But now, when we find four strangers snoring in our berths, as we did recently, we merely tiptoe into another section of the train, find four empty berths, and silently retire."

All members of the Griller Quartet are Fellows of the Royal Academy. Since membership in the Academy is limited and available only at the death of a former fellow. O'Brien, who is 39, remarks: "We shall be the only Fellows under 80, I daresay. Think of the blow to young musicians though," adds Griller, who is 38 and whose colleagues Burton and Hampton are 41 and 37 --- "thinking how long they'll have to wait for us to die!"

Married men in the Quartet include Griller and Hampton, both of whom have two children. O'Brien and Burton are confirmed bachelors. Griller's son, Arnold, plays cello and piano but prefers to play cricket. His daughter, Catherine, plays violin and wishes to become a ballet dancer. Hampton's eldest son is studying piano and cello. The younger son, Andrew, age 9, studies piano and aspires "to be a gangster."

The experiences and achievements of the Griller Quartet are such as to inspire many young persons today who are in doubt concerning the pursuit of their talents. The four members have tuck together, as Lionel Tertis hoped they would, through depression, war --- "and marriage," add the two bachelors.

"I don't think our children are interested in joining any string quartets." Griller says, speaking for Hampton and himself. "They've seen the atmosphere, the strain and the worry."

Griller's son agrees and sums up his rejection of a quartet idea with: "Why be nervous all your life?"


Lafkas, Nicholas P. "Quartet In Residence." California Monthly, VOL. LXI, No. 3,
     (November 1950), pp. 22-23, 43-44.


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