Royal Danish Orchestra draws on history, and makes it


Not many cultural phenomena can stand the test of a few decades, but the Royal Danish Orchestra has been going strong for almost 575 years.

The Copenhagen-based symphony, also known as RDO, holds the title of the oldest orchestra in the world and carries on a centuries-long tradition of great music.

“Naturally, being the oldest orchestra in the world, with documented roots back to the royal trumpeters of King Christian I of Denmark in 1448, means that the self-esteem of the orchestra is very high, and with good reason,” said Jesper Rützou Rosenkilde, RDO’s orchestra director.

Royal roots

The RDO did indeed begin with the trumpet corps of the king, a band of trumpets, trombones and kettledrums playing at his coronation and anywhere else that the court required musical accompaniment.

As time went on, musicians and instruments were added to the mix, eventually forming a full-fledged symphony orchestra.

“The change from a royal ceremonial ensemble to a full-sized symphony orchestra of a very high standard has drawn big artists to work with and develop the orchestra,” Mr. Rosenkilde said.

“Among the most memorable names are Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinskij, Leonard Bernstein, Sergiu Celibidache and Daniel Barenboim,” he said. “These great artists, among others, have contributed to develop the quality, while standing tall on some very strong roots.”

Even a king himself, Frederik IX (1899-1972), conducted the orchestra for a time.

And although absolute monarchy was abolished in Denmark in 1849 – it retains its figurehead, currently Queen Margrethe II – the RDO held on to its royal name and continues on as a national institution.

The Royal Danish Orchestra. Photo by Natascha Thiara Rydvald
Finely tuned

Centuries of history have also endowed the RDO with an impressive collection of heirloom instruments that some lucky musicians get to play themselves.

“One of the reasons many great musicians have played in RDO during the years is the orchestra’s very impressive instrument collection,” Mr. Rosenkilde said. “They have been donated by rich people in Denmark and Copenhagen, people with interest in music and often skilled amateur players themselves.”

The RDO’s ties to the royal family have also proven beneficial, exemplified with the C7 Collection – fine instruments purchased for the orchestra by King Christian XII (1749-1808), also known as “the mad king.” Three are still in use today.

“Among the pearls of our collection are the two Stradivarius violins – the ‘Red Cross Knight’ and the ‘Yoldi-Moldenhauer,’” Mr. Rosenkilde said.

The latter was originally owned by Alfonso Yoldi, a Spanish count who escaped to Denmark during war in 1814 and became a member of the court there. After his death the violin was sold to a pearl and diamond trader, Peter Wilhelm Moldenhauer, who left it to the RDO upon his own death where it is still played.

High notes

The musicians, too, are part of a long tradition started in 1918 by viola player Anton Bloch – each one receives their own unique number, dating all the way back to 1448.

“He did remarkable research work and, without Internet and Excel, managed to reproduce an unbroken line starting with the three [original] trumpet players, Walther (1), Andreas (2) and Hans (3),” Mr. Rosenkilde said.

The current principal flautist, Joachim Becerra Thomsen, is the latest musician to receive an RDO number: 1079.

In 2022, the RDO accompanies opera and ballet performances at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen and puts on its own symphony concerts. This year will see Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s Tosca and a modern tribute to Danish ballet choreographer August Bournonville, among others.

“Not only does the orchestra stands on its history, it also has contributed to over 500 years musical development,” Mr. Rosenkilde said.