The Orchestre National de France (French National Orchestra) is one of France’s most prominent orchestras. Its principal performing venue is the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées from which its concerts are regularly broadcast. It has been in close association with Radio France since 1975, and is therefore active in national radio and television. The Washington Times hailed them "one of the world’s finest symphonic ensembles."
The orchestra was founded on 18 February 1934 as the Orchestre national, the first permanent symphony orchestra to be established in France, comprising a group of 80 top musicians, with Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht as its musical director. Over the years, the orchestra has been conducted by many influential names, such as Arturo Toscanini, Otto Klemperer, Sir Thomas Beecham and Kurt Masur. Its current musical director is Daniele Gatti.
During World War II the orchestra was forced to disband, not least due to air raids but also because most of the orchestra was called to duty in the French army. It was reinstated in 1941 in Marseille, returning to Paris two years later.
The orchestra has always been strongly associated with presenting world premieres. One of the most memorable was the premiere ofEdgard Varese’s Déserts, an early example of electro-acoustic music which combined orchestra and pre-recorded tape. It was premiered on 2 December 1954, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. This experimental music proved difficult for listeners to relate to and inevitably caused riots, echoing the scandal of the Rite of Spring premiere at the same venue in 1913!
Other world premieres that the Orchestre National is proud to possess as part of its history includeSoleil des Eaux by Pierre Boulez (1950), the Turangalîla-Symphony of Olivier Messiaen (first French performance, 1950), Jonchaies by Iannis Xenakis (1977), as well as multiple works by Henri Dutilleux.
The orchestra has gone through various name changes, such as Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, (1949-64) which can been found on many archive recordings from that prolific period.
In 1960, Maurice La Roux became the orchestra’s first permanent conductor to hold the title of Musical Director. Towards the end of the decade, the newly established rival orchestra, Orchestra de Paris proved to be a challenge to the Orchestre National‘s status. Nevertheless, it managed to continue its mission of maintaining international prestige.
Daniele Gatti has held the title of Musical Director since 2008. His predecessor, Kurt Masur, held the position of Honorary Music Director until his death in 2015. On 13 March 2014, the Orchestre National de France celebrated its 80th anniversary with a jubilee concert conducted by Riccardo Muti.
Header image: Public domain Long image: Daniel Gatti, image courtesy of www.manimagazine.it