By Nicholas P.
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"And sitting all night talking about
everything under the sun," Griller adds.
"None of which made any sense," Burton
"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
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
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
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
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
Touring the country pleases the
Grillers and, after 21 years of constant moving about, they have become
"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
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
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
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.