A Brief History of the RSNO

Written on the Orchestra's 125th Anniversary

In 2016, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra celebrated a proud 125-year history of bringing the best in classical music performances to audiences right across Scotland and beyond.

Since our official founding in 1891, as the Scottish Orchestra, we have worked with some of the world’s most respected conductors and soloists – among them Gustav Holst, Richard Strauss, Artur Rubinstein, Aaron Copland, Luciano Pavarotti and Elmer Bernstein – and we have played a crucial role in shaping the musical life of the nation.
Our early Principal Conductors included such eminent figures as John Barbirolli, George Szell and Walter Susskind, under whose tenure we became a full-time salaried ensemble and changed our name (in 1950) to the Scottish National Orchestra.

The figure with the profoundest influence on our activities was Sir Alexander Gibson, Principal Conductor for a remarkable 25 years from 1959 to 1984, who launched a pioneering Sibelius series and led the Orchestra on acclaimed tours of Europe and North America. More recent figures Neeme Järvi, Bryden Thomson, the recently departed Walter Weller, Alexander Lazarev and Stéphane Denève are remembered fondly for their huge contributions to the Orchestra in live concerts, acclaimed recordings and extensive tours.

We continued to provide exceptional concerts despite the challenges of the Depression of the 1930s, and we successfully doubled our number of Season concerts from 27 to 53 during the Second World War, even under constant threat from air raids. We performed at the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, and for the inaugural production of the newly established Scottish Opera in 1962. We survived a devastating fire at our St Andrew’s Halls headquarters the same year, moving first to City Halls in 1968, then to Henry Wood Hall in 1979.

HM The Queen became our Patron in 1977, prompting a name change in 1991 to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. We performed at the opening of Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament building in 2004, and our special status in Scottish cultural life was cemented in 2007 when we were recognised as one of the nation’s five national performing companies, supported directly by the Scottish Government.

We are proud of our 125-year history of exceptional performances in Scotland, and of taking the best in Scottish music making to international audiences. We look forward to the fresh opportunities that our new home in the RSNO Centre offers to us, and to the people of Scotland and beyond, over the next 125 years.

A Historical Timeline of the RSNO

  • April 1891

    The Scottish Orchestra

    The Orchestra was officially founded as the Scottish Orchestra following an earlier gathering of orchestral players to accompany the Glasgow Choral Union in the first Scottish performance of Handel's Messiah in April 1844.

  • 1893

    George Henschel

    George Henschel becomes the Orchestra’s first Principal Conductor, and the Orchestra gives its first orchestral concerts under its new title.


  • 1896

    First Overseas Tour

    Scottish Orchestra’s first overseas tour: a two-week trip to the Netherlands, under Principal Conductor Willem Kes.

  • 1898

    Wilhelm Bruch

    Wilhelm Bruch becomes Principal Conductor.


  • 1900

    Dr Frederic H Cowen

    Dr Frederic H Cowen becomes Principal Conductor.

  • 1900

    Gustav Holst – Second Trombone!

    Gustav Holst joins the Scottish Orchestra as second trombonist. He would stay with the Orchestra until 1904. You can see him in this photo: he's third from the left in the back row.


  • 1902

    Guest Conductor: Richard Strauss

    Richard Strauss conducts the Orchestra in a programme including his Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration.

  • 1910

    Emil Mlynarski

    Emil Mlynarski becomes Principal Conductor.


  • 1915

    Guest Soloist: Artur Rubinstein

    Pianist Artur Rubinstein visits to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

  • 1916–1918

    Concerts Abandoned

    Concerts by the Scottish Orchestra were abandoned between 1916 and 1918, due to the First World War.


  • 1919

    Landon Ronald

    Landon Ronald becomes Principal Conductor.

  • 1933

    Financial Trouble

    Orchestra faces financial troubles during the Depression, but subscribers and guarantors put in healthy funds that guaranteed the Orchestra’s future.


  • 1933

    John Barbirolli

    John Barbirolli becomes Principal Conductor.

  • 1936

    George Szell

    George Szell becomes Principal Conductor.


  • 1939

    Aylmer Buesst

    Aylmer Buesst becomes Principal Conductor.

  • 1939

    World War II

    The Orchestra's concert programme was reduced at the outbreak of the Second World War, with concerts being cancelled at short notice following threats of air raids.


  • 1940

    Warwick Braithwaite

    Warwick Braithwaite becomes Principal Conductor.

  • 1943

    Double the Concerts!

    The Orchestra management doubles the number of season concerts from 27 to 53, admitting it is an ‘adventure’ – but the fuller season becomes a permanent feature.


  • 1946

    Walter Susskind

    Walter Susskind becomes Principal Conductor.

  • 1947

    The first Edinburgh International Festival

    The Scottish Orchestra performs under Principal Conductor Walter Susskind at the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival.


  • 1950

    Scottish National Orchestra

    The Scottish Orchestra is renamed as the Scottish National Orchestra and becomes a permanent, full-time ensemble.

  • 1952

    Karl Rankl

    Karl Rankl becomes Principal Conductor.


  • 1957

    Hans Swarowsky

    Hans Swarowsky becomes Principal Conductor.

  • 1959

    Alexander Gibson

    Alexander Gibson becomes Principal Conductor.


  • 1960

    Musica Viva / Musica Nova

    Alexander Gibson founds Musica Viva, first a concert and later a triennial festival of contemporary music. Later renamed Musica Nova, it would continue until 1990.

  • 26 October 1962

    Fire at St Andrew’s Hall

    St Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow, the SNO’s principal concert venue, is almost entirely destroyed by fire on 26 October, following a boxing match.

    26 October 1962

  • 1962

    Scottish Opera

    Scottish National Orchestra accompanies the first production of Scottish Opera, conducted by Alexander Gibson.

  • 1964

    Guest Conductor Aaron Copland

    American composer Aaron Copland conducts a programme that includes his Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo.


  • 30 December 1966

    Alexander Gibson CBE

    Principal Conductor Alexander Gibson receives a CBE – Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – in Her Majesty The Queen's 1967 New Year Honours List, announced on 30 December 1966.

  • 1967

    SNO European Tour with Alexander Gibson, Jacqueline du Pré and Janet Baker.

    Alexander Gibson takes the SNO on its first European tour, beginning in Vienna’s Musikverein, with two very famous British soloists: cellist Jacqueline du Pré and mezzo-soprano Janet Baker.


  • 1968

    A New Home: City Halls

    Following the fire at St Andrew's Hall, the Scottish National Orchestra gives its first concert in its new home, Glasgow’s City Halls.

  • 1975

    USA & Canada Tour

    The Scottish National Orchestra makes its first tour of the USA and Canada.


  • 1977

    Royal Patronage

    Her Majesty The Queen becomes patron of the Scottish National Orchestra.

  • 11 June 1977

    Arise, Sir Alexander Gibson CBE

    Principal Conductor Alexander Gibson CBE receives a Knighthood for services to music in Scotland in Her Majesty The Queen's 1977 Silver Jubilee and Birthday Honours list, announced on 11 June 1977.

    11 June 1977

  • 1978

    RSNO Junior Chorus is founded

    The RSNO Junior Chorus is formed by Jean Kidd.

  • 1979

    New Home: Henry Wood Hall

    The Scottish National Orchestra moves into the Henry Wood Hall – formerly Trinity Church – on Claremont Street as its new rehearsal space.


  • 1984

    Neeme Järvi

    Neeme Järvi becomes Principal Conductor.

  • 1985

    Guest Narrator: Lina Llubera

    Lina Llubera, Prokofiev’s widow, narrates Peter and the Wolf for the Chandos Records recording, conducted by Neeme Järvi.


  • 1985

    Gramophone Award

    The Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi, wins a Gramophone Award in the Orchestral category for its recording of Prokofiev's Symphony No6 and Three Waltzes on the Chandos Records label.

  • 1987

    Japan Tour

    The Scottish National Orchestra tours Japan.


  • 1988

    Bryden Thomson

    Bryden Thomson becomes Principal Conductor.

  • October 1990

    Glasgow Royal Concert Hall opens

    The official opening of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. The SNO gives its first concert there in October 1990, in the presence of HRH The Princess Royal.

    October 1990

  • 1991

    Walter Weller

    Walter Weller becomes Principal Conductor.

  • 1991

    Royal Scottish National Orchestra

    Orchestra confirms its royal patronage with a name change to Royal Scottish National Orchestra. However, this was subsequently (and briefly!) shortened to Royal Scottish Orchestra, and then finally renamed Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 1992.


  • 1992

    Guest Soloist: Luciano Pavarotti

    The Royal Scottish National Orchestra performs with Luciano Pavarotti at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre.

  • 1994

    Christopher Bell

    Christopher Bell becomes Chorus Director of the RSNO Junior Chorus, and membership expands to almost 300.


  • 1996

    Film Recordings

    Orchestra records the score for To Kill a Mockingbird under the baton of the composer himself, Elmer Bernstein. This is later followed by recordings of The Magnificent Seven and\nThe Great Escape.

  • 1997

    Alexander Lazarev

    Alexander Lazarev becomes Principal Conductor.


  • 1997

    Gramophone Award

    The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely, wins the first ever Gramophone Award in the film music category for its recording of Bernard Herrmann's original motion picture score of Vertigo on the Varèse Sarabande label.

  • 2001

    Royal Philharmonic Society Award

    The RSNO wins the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Rumble in the Jungle, an education project for under-fives.


  • 2004

    Holyrood Opening

    The Royal Scottish National Orchestra performs at the opening of Holyrood, the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, in the presence of Her Majesty The Queen.

  • 2005

    Stéphane Denève

    Stéphane Denève becomes Music Director.


  • 2007

    RSNO becomes a National Performing Company

    The Royal Scottish National Orchestra becomes one of Scotland’s five national performing companies, supported directly by the Scottish Government.

  • 2012

    Diapason d’Or de l’année

    The RSNO conducted by Stéphane Denève win the prestigious Diapason d’Or de l’année for their disc of Debussy orchestral works.


  • 2012

    Peter Oundjian

    Peter Oundjian becomes Music Director.

  • 2012

    Thomas Søndergård

    Thomas Søndergård becomes Principal Guest Conductor.


  • 2012

    Astar – music for every baby in Scotland

    The RSNO produces Astar – a CD featuring Scottish songs, nursery rhymes and classical works, which was given to every child born in Scotland between October 2012 and October 2013.

  • 2012/2013

    Hogmanay in China

    On 27 December 2012, the RSNO departed for a Hogmanay tour of China with Music Director Peter Oundjian, returning to Scotland on 7 January 2013.


  • 2015

    New Home: RSNO Centre

    The musicians and administrative staff of the RSNO move into the RSNO Centre at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall – a purpose-built new home right in the centre of Glasgow, Scotland’s UNESCO City of Music. At the heart of the building is Glasgow’s newest performance space: an acoustically adjustable, 600-seat auditorium that provides world-class rehearsal and recording facilities for the Orchestra. The RSNO Centre also houses a dedicated education space, the Robertson Learning and Engagement Centre.

  • 2018

    Thomas Søndergård

    Thomas Søndergård becomes Music Director.


  • 2018

    Elim Chan

    Elim Chan becomes Principal Guest Conductor.

© Royal Scottish National Orchestra 2021