The Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra (ERSO) was founded in 1931 by Ernest Read,  the pioneer in music education who influenced generations of young performers and audiences.

Who was Ernest Read?

Ernest was born in 1879 in a Surrey village where his father and grandfather were butchers and keen musicians.  Village music revolved around the church and by 16 Read had been appointed as the official organist and choirmaster.  His family were persuaded to send him to the Royal Academy of Music where he won organ prizes and gained a working knowledge of all of the orchestral instruments, which stood him in good stead in his later career.

Read loved to teach and went on to become involved with educational institutions becoming the Principal of Watford School of Music, Director of Music at Queenwood school and a professor at the Royal Academy.  He wrote a revolutionary aural training book with musical examples taken from works of the great composers and became a passionate supporter of Dalcroze Eurythmics which emphasized training the whole body to participate in musical expression. 

Youth orchestras

Read realised that there were few opportunities for young people to continue orchestral playing after leaving school and started the very first youth orchestra, the London Junior Orchestra (LJO), for school leavers in 1926.  Within a dozen years this had grown into four London Orchestras with eleven affiliates in the rest of the country and overseas – the very start of the youth orchestra movement.

Providing opportunities and training for young professional musicians

As the London Junior Orchestra grew  – from 25 players in 1926 to 122 in 1931 –  it became apparent that there was a need for a more senior orchestra to give experience and training to the more advanced players.   The first concert of the London Senior Orchestra (later known as ERSO) took place on 11 June 1931 and the orchestra had its first full season in 1931/32.

Jack Brymer, the legendary clarinettist who gained his early orchestral training at ERSO, said of Read: “he was one of the most helpful friends I ever had, just as he proved to be to hundreds of other young players to whom he gave the most valuable training.”  Other famous players who benefitted from experience with ERSO during their early professional lives included: horn player Dennis Brain who brought the horn into prominence as a solo instrument; Evelyn Rothwell, who went on to become one of the UK’s most famous oboists and one of the first women to play in the London Symphony Orchestra; and James Galway who was the first international flute superstar who inspired a generation to take up the flute and who was known around the world as “the man with the golden flute”.

Another famous member in the 1950’s was Gerard Hoffnung, an artist and musician well known for his humorous cartoons, many of which focused on the world of music. He was a keen tuba player and a member of Ernest Read’s London Junior Orchestra (the very first youth orchestra) in the 1950s.Hoffnung created this affectionate cartoon of Read conducting in 1956 to mark the 30th anniversary of the London Junior Orchestra. Please see for a comprehensive selection of Hoffnung cartoons and other material.

Cartoon of Ernest Read presented by Hoffnung in 1956

The orchestra provided opportunities for young soloists early in their careers including:

  • the young Jacqueline du Pre who gave her first ever performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto with ERSO in December 1959
  • Guy Johnston who had his earliest solo opportunity at 14 years old when he performed the Lalo Cello Concerto with ERSO at the Royal Festival Hall. Guy went on to win BBC Young Musician of the Year, became a famous solo cellist and a Professor at the Royal Academy of Music and recently said: “I’ll never forget it- Lalo in the RFH aged 14 or so! Thank you ERSO”
  • Michael Collins who at 16 had recently won the woodwind category of the first ever BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and performed Spohr’s fourth clarinet concerto with ERSO.  Michael went on to become the highest profile clarinettist of his generation in Britain.

Children’s concerts

Read was passionate about spreading music to children and young people. His orchestras played in schools, concert halls and the BBC studios, culminating in the birth of the renowned Ernest Read Concerts for Children in 1945. He developed an innovative format for these incredibly popular day-time concerts that many professional symphony orchestras still follow today, with short programmes, accessible introductions to the repertoire and audience participation.

ERSO at the Barbican in 1992 celebrating 50 years of concerts for children. Photo: Bill Cooper

Holiday courses

Read’s final creative initiative was to set up holiday courses – initially in 1944 for young people under the auspices of the Music Teachers Association and five years later his own residential orchestral training  at Queenwood.  This  initiative influenced Ruth Railton in founding the National Youth Orchestra. 

Later years

In 1960 Ernest created the  Ernest Read Music Association (ERMA) to continue his work and manage the orchestras, choirs and holiday courses.  He died 5 years later, on the opening day of the 1965 season of Children’s Concerts. 

In 1980, financial pressures forced required ERMA to slim down and Read’s son in law and daughter, Noel and Jean Long, took over managing ERMA until their retirement in 1998.  This was a crisis point for ERSO as we had had benefited hugely from all of the marketing, administration and logistical work carried by Noel and Jean.  The ERSO players decided that the orchestra must carry on and formed the registered charity Music Illuminated to manage ERSO and carry on Read’s work.