The Edinburgh Quartet was founded in 1960 when Sidney Newman, then Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, invited Miles Baster to return from New York’s Juilliard School of Music to establish a professional quartet based in the City of Edinburgh. Previously the New Edinburgh Quartet had filled this role, and their cellist Ian Hampton (son of Griller Quartet cellist Colin Hampton) remained in Edinburgh to provide a link between the two ensembles.
Thus the Edinburgh Quartet was one of the first university-based quartets in the UK. Although still busily involved in the musical life of Edinburgh University, the Edinburgh Quartet is now resident at the Universities of Aberdeen and Stirling, and regularly works with composition students at Edinburgh Napier University.
After its formation, the Quartet quickly became established as one of the foremost British ensembles, with frequent foreign tours supported by recordings on the Waverley label, subsequently subsumed by EMI. Having worked closely with Michael Tippett, the Edinburgh Quartet’s recording of Quartet No 1 was selected by the composer for re-release shortly before his death Close relationships were established with some of the most distinguished composers of the time (still very much a priority of the present players, who are proud to have James MacMillan as patron).
Indeed, their work in this field earned them the first PRS award from the Scottish Society of Composers. Kenneth Leighton, who himself became Reid Professor at Edinburgh, and Hans Gal (a wonderful Viennese musician, composer and academic who settled in Edinburgh in the 1930s) worked intimately with the Edinburgh Quartet in the preparation and performance of their works. Plans are in hand to record the complete chamber music of both of these composers, along with pieces by many of the other Scottish composers who have been championed by the Edinburgh Quartet over the decades.
Foreign tours soon became a frequent feature of the Quartet’s season. In addition to regular journeys to European countries and the USA, the Edinburgh Quartet toured extensively not only through South America but also to many of the Caribbean islands in the 1960s and early 70s – extremely enjoyable tours which were also pioneering expeditions to many areas which had not experienced this sort of music before.
The 1980s saw the Quartet playing regularly behind the Iron Curtain, with tours of Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia, and the Baltic States Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In this decade, the Edinburgh Quartet also began their work in the Middle East, with frequent and fascinating trips to most of the countries around the Gulf in addition to the nearer civilisations of Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria etc. The Quartet worked each year as mentors to the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra (most memorably in 1996, when, with Yehudi Menuhin as colleague, they prepared the orchestra for a performance at the Royal Oman Auditorium. Menuhin was conductor and the quartet members soloists.) These international musical connections are still active, and have been enriched in recent years by the Quartet’s regular visits to the islands of Cyprus and Malta.
In addition to fulfilling their regular series of engagements over a wide area, the players are more involved than most string quartets in the promotion of chamber music, playing both in Scotland’s cities and throughout the county’s rural areas. Regular performances are given at Edinburgh’s Queens Hall. Major works of the quartet repertoire are toured to the remotest locations of the Highlands and Islands, providing an intimate and complete musical experience to communities that may otherwise receive only scaled-down performances by larger companies, or perhaps no music at all.
This outreach work has always been linked to the Edinburgh Quartet’s educational programmes; master classes and workshops in music schools, conservatoires and universities, along with summer schools for Shell Expro, Scottish Amateur Music Association, etc, have contributed hugely over the years to the musical development of Scotland’s young and old alike.