Göteborg (Gothenburg), Sweden's second largest city, with a population of around half a million, is the home to the oldest and most prestigious professional orchestra in the country. Located on Sweden's western (North Sea) coast, Göteborg became an important fishing, shipping, and manufacturing center. A violinist named Le Hay, with a few professional musicians as his staff, founded a music school for interested amateurs and organized teachers and their students into ad hoc ensembles that gave concerts between 1781 and 1791. The first subscription concerts were begun by Joseph Czapek, who settled in the city in 1847.
In 1905 an orchestral association, the Göteborgs Orkesterförening, was organized, with funding from local industrial concerns. Part of the motivation was to provide orchestral concerts as cultural stimulation for the workers and the increasing number of educated technical staff, who needed additional incentives to move to a non-metropolitan location. The first concerts were given the same year.
In 1906 the society engaged composer Wilhelm Stenhammar to become the orchestra's principal conductor. He was a firm leader, with strong gifts for orchestra building and a widely ranging interest in new repertory. Under his leadership, the orchestra began to grow into a first rate small symphonic ensemble. This process was only speeded when he made the choice of Tor Aulin, another excellent orchestral trainer, as his assistant. Stenhammar was an innovator as a symphony director. Reasoning that children benefited by exposure to orchestral music (and that many of them then grew up to be fans of the art form), he was among the first conductors anywhere to establish regular school outreach concerts. This has resulted in symphony concerts becoming one of the favorite forms of musical entertainment in Göteborg and the surrounding area. Stenhammar and the Göteborg Symphony were the first to introduce the music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen to Sweden.
Stenhammar had to overcome the obstacle of Göteborg's lack of a suitable concert hall. This was remedied in 1935, with the opening of a municipally financed hall, the Göteborgs Konserthus. This hall of modern design (with some art deco elements) has legendary acoustics and vies with such venues as Boston's Orchestra Hall, Carnegie Hall, and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in various commentators' opinions as the best-sounding concert hall in the world. The richness and clarity of the sound is one of the factors that have set the high standards that the Göteborg Symphony has met.
In addition, the orchestra management over the years has shown notable skill in choosing Stenhammar's successors as music director, which have included Tor Mann, Ture Rängstrom, Isay Dobrowen, Sixten Eckberg, Dean Dixon, Sten Frykberg, Sergiu Comissiona, Charles Dutoit, Sixten Ehrling, and, since 1982, the Estonian maestro Neeme Järvi.
Soon after his accession to the podium of the orchestra, Järvi began a long association with Sweden's Bis record company which has mode both Järvi and the orchestra world-famous. Järvi, exhibiting an astonishingly large repertory, began with a complete cycle of Sibelius recordings. With Järvi or others, on both the Bis and Deutsche Grammophon labels, the orchestra has produced dozens of recordings, including complete cycles of music with orchestra by Tubin, Nielsen, Grieg, Borodin, and several others, and the complete Rachmaninov operas.
Järvi had taken the orchestra on several successful tours. When they played in Vienna for the first time in 1994, the Wiener Zeitung wrote, "Many in the Musikverein might have doubted, for the first time, that the Vienna Philharmonic really is the best orchestra in the world."
In May 1997, the Swedish Parliament and government appointed the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra as "Sweden's National Orchestra."