The Royal Danish Orchestra 575 years

Article by Andrew Mellor

Like stringed instruments by the old masters, orchestras tend to improve with age. That gives the Royal Danish Orchestra a rare distinction even before you hear it play. For seniority, no ensemble in the world can match it. 

As the oldest orchestras in the US and UK were celebrating their centenaries in the 1940s, this one was marking 500 years as a performing unit – the oldest musical ensemble of its kind on earth by some distance. The Dresden Staatskapelle, perhaps Germany’s most respected vintage orchestra, turned 400 in 1948 – a whole century younger than its Danish counterpart. 

‘Unrivalled pedigree’ sounds like marketing speak. In the case of the Royal Danish Orchestra, it can be uttered with genuine meaning. Five years before its 1948 quincentenary celebrations, the two most sought-after conductors on the planet were fighting over which would secure a date to conduct the orchestra in Copenhagen. In the end, Herbert von Karajan trumped his rival Wilhelm Furtwängler by offering his services for free. 

There are plenty more stories where that came from: Daniel Barenboim claiming he decided to become a professional musician on the night he heard the orchestra in concert at La Scala in 1954; Sir Simon Rattle describing the privilege and opportunity of conducting ‘this magnificent orchestra’ in 2013; Mariss Jansons recounting in 2018 how colleagues had tipped him off that ‘this is an orchestra to work with.’

There is hardly an orchestra in Europe, let alone Scandinavia, that can rival the list of conductors this orchestra has indeed worked with – Erich Kleiber, Bruno Walter, Hans Knappertsbusch, Pierre Monteux, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Rafael Kubelik, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Georg Solti, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez and Kirill Petrenko to take just a sample alongside Barenboim, Rattle, Jansons and the rest.

All those musicians were guests. The orchestra’s actual membership has hardly been less distinguished. John Dowland (140), Heinrich Schütz (259) and Carl Nielsen (647) have all been on the playing staff. And yes, every member since day one has been allocated an identifying number: from a trumpet-playing Mr Walther (1) in the fifteenth-century to, at the last count, Jonathan Jakshøj (1082,) who joined the percussion section in 2023.

The history of the Royal Danish Orchestra is also that of Denmark and Europe. Unsurprisingly, the world’s oldest musical ensemble has its roots in one of the world’s oldest monarchies. It was established in 1448 as a corps of trumpeters with an added kettledrum, a mobile troupe employed to herald the presence of Denmark’s King Christian I.

The trumpeters were as central to state splendour as they were embroiled in its conflicts. They were immersed in the squalor and struggles of the age. Early members are reported ‘shot by enemies of the state’ (Magnus Thomsen, 122), murdered by fellow musicians (Friederich Mott, 114) and executed for that very crime (Christian Lauersen, 175). The music they played was considered a state secret, written in codified notation to ensure it couldn’t be imitated. 

By 1515, the ensemble incorporated singers. By 1545 it had welcomed crumhorns, cornets and sackbuts into its ranks. For the marriage of Frederik II to Sophie of Mecklenberg 1572, it could call upon supernumerary cithers, harps, fiddles and shawms. It was growing in versatility, able to dignify ceremony with music but also to entertain. Its members could play, act, dance and juggle.  

Under Christian IV, now known in Danish as the Royal Chapel (‘Det Kongelige Kapel’) as it is today, the troupe grew into one of the biggest bands in Europe. No stranger to ostentation, Christian found himself having to recruit musicians internationally having purchased instruments nobody in Denmark could play. They came from England, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Netherlands just as they come from Australia, North America and the Far East today. Records show Christian despatching musicians to Venice to hone their craft with Giovanni Gabrielli – much like being sent to perfect your ball skills with Erling Haaland.

Christian’s standout signing was John Dowland, the world’s first great songwriter. He penned his signature Flow My Tears in Denmark in the late 1590s, 410 years before it was covered by Sting. Towards the end of his 54-year reign, the King snagged the leading German composer Heinrich Schütz ‘on loan’ from the Dresden court. The plan was for Schütz to direct the 80-plus musicians assembled for the wedding of Christian’s son to Magdalena Sibylla of Saxony. But Schütz stayed in Copenhagen long enough to get his own number (259) and have a profound impact on the Royal Chapel’s scope and ambition. In the staged tableaux organized for the wedding feast, Schütz gave the orchestra its first taste of sophisticated contemporary theatre, foreshadowing its primary role today.

No court in Europe could ignore musical developments at Versailles in the mid 1600s. Louis XIV’S ensemble of violins was replicated in Copenhagen, with French musicians imported to form the core of a string band. More and more, the Royal Chapel was starting to function like the orchestra we know today. Opera’s arrival in Denmark should have accelerated that process from the start. Alas, Copenhagen’s first opera house was destroyed by fire in 1689 just days into its inaugural production. 170 perished and the orchestra came perilously close to extinction, counting just four members in the aftermath of the tragedy.

No organization that has seen the turning of six centuries is immune from fortune’s ebb and flow. But if the 1600s had been about boom and (near) bust, the 1700s would be about consolidation. Galvanizing leaders were hired to capitalize on the Royal Music’s remaining assets and reform it for the long term. They came, of course, from Germany. Johann Gottlieb Naumann (432) established an apprenticeship system to nurture local talent and feed the ensemble with musicians. JAP Schulz (455) brought self-respect to the group, establishing its first pension scheme and organizing concerts for the people of Copenhagen. Schulz is said to have risked his life to rescue furniture, music, instruments and colleagues from another fire – the great blaze of February 1794 that destroyed much of the court’s musical equipment and library. 

Naumann and Schulz laid foundations from which greatness could rise. And it did. Like a coach primed to take a team to the top of the league, a certain Claus Schall (422) took charge of the ensemble having emerged from within it. He was a pioneer of the newfangled discipline of ‘conducting’ – using not a violin to direct the musicians, but a stick. Under Schall’s baton, the orchestra became a force to be reckoned with.

It now included a full complement of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, each section competent enough for Schall to inspire it to new heights. ‘One of the best orchestras in Europe,’ wrote the German journal Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1815. ‘Nowhere are Mozart’s works performed better than in this capital when it comes to the orchestra led by Schall,’ wrote the composer’s widow Constanze after an 1811 performance of Don Giovanni. Carl Maria von Weber agreed, citing the orchestra’s superlative Mozart while conducting his own overture to Der Freischütz with the ensemble – music it has since taken to its heart.

This is where it starts to get interesting. On 30 May 1849, Denmark ceased to be an absolute monarchy and Frederik VII handed the Royal Chapel and Theatre over to the new Ministry of Culture. There was talk of the state abandoning the aristocratic ensemble it had inherited and starting again from scratch. But the Royal Theatre’s director Johann Ludvig Heiberg sensed that in severing links with the past, something would be lost in the future. The ensemble founded by Christian I must continue. It would now serve the state as the nation’s orchestra for opera and ballet, without ever quite shedding its regal status.

Perhaps for the first time, the orchestra had a sure idea of itself. It became conscious of its own traditions and its own sound – and of how that sound might be shaped from within. From the nineteenth century into the twentieth, telling characteristics begin to emerge. Numerous chamber groups spring up from within the ensemble, suggesting a corpus of musicians with a deep interest in honing their craft in detail. We begin to read of ‘personality’ musicians who pass idiosyncratic playing styles on to generations of successors (sometimes within their own family). 

Richard Strauss noted the ‘bravura’ in principal oboe Peter Brøndum’s playing when conducting his own Der Rosenkavalier in 1917. Jean Sibelius loved the sound of the brass section and its trombone group, reorganized courtesy of solo trombone of nearly 40 years, Anton Hansen (694). Italian-Danish conductor Egisto Tango (752) cultivated ‘brilliance and rhythm’ – qualities demanded by the vigorous, thrusting music of a composer who emerged from within the orchestra’s violins, Carl Nielsen (657). While the orchestra induced symphonies and operas from Nielsen, those characterful winds, as well as an incomparable concertmaster, inspired him to write three landmark instrumental concertos.

In 2005, the orchestra’s base moved from Kongens Nytorv in the heart of Copenhagen for the first time in over two centuries. A new opera house on the island of Holmen was brought to global attention with a production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen issued later as a live recording by Decca – the London record label’s first Ring since that completed by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic over 40 years earlier, the most talked-about classical recording ever made. Schall’s successor Johan Svendsen (640) had introduced the orchestra to the music of Wagner’s Ring in the late 1800s.

So what does the twenty-first-century Royal Danish Orchestra sound like, in a building designed to optimize that sound? Reviewing the Copenhagen Ring, Gramophone Magazine described it as ‘the Vienna Philharmonic of the north with its forward, rich woodwind timbres,’ shortly before handing it a Gramophone Award. It later referred to the ‘dark, wood sound’ of the orchestra in a recording of Wagner’s Tannhäuser

As the ensemble passes the threshold of 575 years, it’s intriguing to speculate where its characteristically aristocratic, noble sound comes from. The grainy, earthy sound of the orchestra’s strings – a more central European than Nordic-style sound – might be connected to its stash of priceless string instruments by the old masters, collected down the centuries and still in use. But equipment means little without approach. The resonant, fulsome string playing pioneered by the likes of cellist Jarl Hansen (810) made for a potent union of instruments and musicianship, building on foundations already laid. The workshop Hansen founded in 1956, Jargar Strings, became among the first to manufacture and sell steel strings, matching the full-bodied music of the time. It continues to supply string players around the world.

The orchestra’s wider sound culture – the effect of those deep radiating strings, forward winds and feline brass – is apparently capable of transcending generational and acoustical change (the orchestra still plays regularly at the old opera house on Kongens Nytorv). Perhaps it’s a mentality, one shaped by the heightened reactivity and dramatic flexibility of playing opera in a darkened pit. When the orchestra takes to the concert stage, the effect is felt: ‘if you’ve been playing opera and ballet, you play symphonic music with the sort of agility and flexibility normally associated with chamber music,’ believes former violinist Troels Svendsen (862), a new recruit when Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra in 1965.

The twenty-first century Royal Danish Orchestra faces challenges as old as itself: competition to get the best musicians as guests and members; the never-ending thirst for greater resourcing and the thin line between hard work and overexertion. Other challenges are new: the place of notated music in a digital age and the cultivation of excellence in a world that favours the short-term, the instantaneous and the disposable. Those things seem only to stoke the Royal Danish Orchestra’s extraordinary collective will and pride, manifest in both performance and politics – and in its own consideration of its place in Danish, Nordic and global cultural life. UNESCO is already on to that, considering the orchestra for its list of the world’s ‘intangible cultural treasures’.

After all that – and even as it sees itself more and more as a resource for all Danes, young and old – this remains, somehow, a royal orchestra. We may never see a repeat of the day in March 1970, when King Frederik IX of Denmark conducted its musicians in a performance of the slow movement from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3, with his own son-in-law Prince Henrik as soloist. But from her palace directly opposite the opera house across the harbour, Frederik’s daughter Queen Margrethe II can still keep a watchful eye over her nation’s cultural crown jewel. 

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is Copenhagen correspondent for Gramophone, Opera and Opera Now and author of The Northern Silence – Journeys in Nordic Music and Culture (Yale University Press)