The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra (Kungliga Filharmonikerna) puts on a programme of concerts for schoolchildren. That's not exactly a startling statement, until you realise that in 2017, the RSPO will be celebrating one hundred years of concerts for children.

Stockholm Concert Hall © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
Stockholm Concert Hall
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

According to Stefan Forsberg, CEO of both the orchestra and the Stockholm Concert Hall (Konserthuset in Swedish), this surprises people, who think that “maybe this was something that Simon Rattle created, or someone else famous”. In fact, the first concerts for schools were in 1917, during the First World War. At the time, says Karina Svensson, who runs the educational concerts, there was a strong democratic, pedagogical movement in Sweden: it was strongly felt that classical music needed to be taught to all children – not least because many of the Konserthuset's Intendants through the years had a background of being music scholars or teachers.

The school concerts are still a strong part of what the RSPO does, and Forsberg is proud to be the guardian of “an unbroken chain” that has lasted a hundred years. He is especially proud that every boy and every girl in every school in the entirety of Stockholm County is invited to these concerts – every year, over 40,000 visit the Concert Hall's family and educational programme, the hall, with many attending one of the three week-long courses (one for six year olds, one for primary schools, one for secondary). Each series runs for a week, with three concerts a day, Tuesday to Saturday (kids can be joined by their families on the Saturday).

Unsurprisingly, the programme of today looks very different from the programme of a century ago. In those days, classical music – keys, composers, the shift from Haydn to Mozart, etc – was a normal, integrated part of what you learned. For those early concerts, children were asked to fill in question sheets so advanced that Forsberg is sure that most audience members today would be utterly unable to complete them. Today, the first priority is to make kids interested that there is such a thing as classical music in the first place, that there’s even a possibility of them learning to play an instrument or watch a conductor. Gender plays its part, too: Forsberg is adamant that girls must be able to see “not just music by Wolfgang, Johannes or Ludwig, but also music by Anna or Alma or Fanny” and think “I can do that” as well as “look, that’s a girl standing there conducting”.

Children at the El Sistema Programme © Tina Axelsson
Children at the El Sistema Programme
© Tina Axelsson
Today, the programmes are still “real” music (examples are the Mozart Requiem, Holst’s The Planets and Scandinavian music in the shape of Sibelius, Grieg or Stenhammar). They can get quite elaborate: full productions, with supporting material that can be used in advance at the schools, including films of how to produce sound on the various instruments. Still, it’s always a revelation for the children to arrive at the Konserthuset: “a perfect place and acoustic for music, it has a reverberation, there’s not a microphone in sight”. Svensson points out that the Konserthuset is a huge experience for the kids: they’re coming to a place that looks utterly different from their school or anything that’s familiar to them, and they’re seeing not just one or two musicians but this huge amount of music streaming towards them from so many players.

One recent programme, based on Grieg’s Mountain King, featured an actor, a director and a purpose-written storyline: the production will be taken up by other orchestras and toured around Sweden. A more ambitious project, for the 14-year olds, starts with Mozart’s Requiem. It’s explained to the children in school that this is Mozart’s expression of life and death, and they’re asked what are their own reflections; they attend workshops where they create their own lyrics, hip-hop style, and then come to the Konserthuset to perform them, with the accompaniment of Mozart's original music, played by the full RSPO. It makes clear, says Forsberg, that “this is so much more than just a transient piece of entertainment”.

As digital communication has become a part of everyday life, it's been possible to create more and better tools to broaden the musicians' reach. An offering which has been very popular with both teachers and schoolchildren has been a deliciously quirky series of short films about each orchestral instrument: these feature the RSPO's players proudly showing off how their instruments are played, each in their individual style: check out the percussion section pointing out the 387 different things they can hit ("if we had to carry all these around, we'd be removal men rather than musicians"), the horn player dressed up as Fred Flintstone failing hopelessly to get a sound out of a cowhorn or the clarinettist putting together his instrument like a jigsaw puzzle. The website claims that the videos are aimed at 6-9 year olds, but they looked pretty good to me for all ages. The full series is on this link (English subtitles can be switched on with the "T" icon).

The orchestral instruments: Percussion
The orchestral instruments: Percussion
The orchestral instruments: The French horns
The orchestral instruments: The French horns

Another fun creation has been Concert Patrol, a three part mini-series made in conjunction with children's TV producers Svenska Barnprogram. Each episode is a mystery story where three children roams the Konserthuset to explore the meaning of some obscure object that must be explained before the concert can begin – they travel round meeting each of the players, with the crucial clue that solves the mystery (of course) being provided by RSPO's chief conductor, Sakari Oramo.

It's a means of letting children learn without even realising that they're being taught anything: they're just having fun and taking in information as they go. And it's another stage in the Stockholm Concert Hall's democratising mission to take classical orchestral music off its pedestal and make it part of an everyday experience for ordinary people.


This article was sponsored by Stockholm Concert Hall.