The BSO was founded in 1881 by Henry Lee Higginson. Its first conductor was George Henschel, who was a noted baritone as well as conductor, and a close friend of Johannes Brahms. For the orchestra, Henschel devised innovative orchestral seating charts and sent them to Brahms, who replied approvingly and commented on the issues raised by horn and viola sections in a letter of mid-November 1881.
The orchestra's four subsequent music directors were all trained in Austria, including the seminal and highly influential Hungarian-born conductor Arthur Nikisch, in accordance with the tastes of Higginson. Wilhelm Gericke served twice, from 1884 to 1889 and again from 1898 to 1906. According to Joseph Horowitz's review of correspondence, Higginson considered 25 candidates to replace Gericke after receiving notice in 1905. He decided not to offer the position to Gustav Mahler, Fritz Steinbach, and Willem Mengelberg but did not rule out the young Bruno Walter if nobody more senior were to accept. He offered the position to Hans Richter in February 1905, who declined, to Felix Mottl in November, who was previously engaged, and then to previous director Nikisch, who declined; the post was finally offered to Karl Muck, who accepted and began his duties in October 1906. He was conductor until 1908 and again from 1912 to 1918.
The music director 1908–12 was Max Fiedler. He conducted the premiere of Ignacy Jan Paderewski's Symphony in B minor "Polonia" in 1909.
During World War I, Muck (born in Germany but a Swiss citizen since childhood), was arrested, shortly before a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1918, and interned in a prison camp without trial or charge until the end of the war, when he was deported. He vowed never to return, and conducted thereafter only in Europe. The BSO's next two titled conductors were French: Henri Rabaud, who took over from Muck for a season, and then Pierre Monteux from 1919 to 1924. Monteux, because of a musician's strike, was able to replace 30 players, thus changing the orchestra's sound; the orchestra developed a reputation for a "French" sound which persists to some degree to this day.
The orchestra's reputation increased during the music directorship of Serge Koussevitzky. One million radio listeners tuned in when Koussevitzky and the orchestra were the first to perform a live concert for radio broadcast, which they did on NBC in 1926.
Under Koussevitzky, the orchestra gave regular radio broadcasts and established its summer home at Tanglewood, where Koussevitzky founded the Berkshire Music Center, which is now the Tanglewood Music Center. Those network radio broadcasts ran from 1926 through 1951, and again from 1954 through 1956. The orchestra continues to make regular live radio broadcasts to the present day. The Boston Symphony has been closely involved with Boston's WGBH Radio as an outlet for its concerts.
Koussevitzky also commissioned many new pieces from prominent composers, including the Symphony No. 4 of Sergei Prokofiev, George Gershwin's Second Rhapsody and the Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky. They also gave the premiere of Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, which had been commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation at the instigation of Fritz Reiner and Joseph Szigeti.
Koussevitzky started a tradition of commissions that the orchestra continued, including new works by Heitor Villa-Lobos (Symphony No.11) and Henri Dutilleux for its 75th anniversary, Roger Sessions, and Andrzej Panufnik, for the 100th, and lately for the 125th works by Leon Kirchner, Elliott Carter, and Peter Lieberson. Other BSO commissions have included John Corigliano's Symphony No. 2 for the 100th anniversary of Symphony Hall. Hans Werner Henze dedicated his Eighth Symphony to the orchestra.
Although Koussevitsky recommended his protégé Leonard Bernstein to be his successor after he retired in 1949, the BSO awarded the position to the Alsatian maestro Charles Munch. Munch had made his Boston conducting debut in 1946. He led orchestra on its first overseas tour, and also produced their first stereo recording in February 1954 for RCA Victor. In 1952, Munch appointed the first woman to hold a principal chair in a major U. S. orchestra, flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer, who remained as BSO principal for 38 years.
Erich Leinsdorf became music director in 1962 and held the post until 1969. William Steinberg was then music director from 1969 to 1972. Steinberg was "ill and ailing" according to composer/author Jan Swafford, and "for four years he was indisposed much of the time." After Steinberg's retirement, according to BSO trustee John Thorndike (who was on the search committee) the symphony's board spoke to Colin Davis and "investigated very thoroughly" his appointment, but Davis's commitments to his young family did not allow his moving to Boston from England; instead he accepted the post of BSO principal guest conductor, which he held from 1972 to 1984. As the search continued, Leonard Bernstein met with four board members and recommended Michael Tilson Thomas, who had been Assistant Conductor and Associate Conductor under Steinberg, for the directorship, but the young conductor "did not have sufficient support among the BSO players," according to journalist Jeremy Eichler. The committee eventually chose Seiji Ozawa, who became Music Director in 1973 and held the post until 2002, the longest tenure of any Boston Symphony conductor. (Bernard Haitink served as principal guest conductor from 1995 to 2004, and was named conductor emeritus in 2004.)
Ozawa's tenure involved significant dissension and controversy. One concern was his handling of the Tanglewood Music Center. Greg Sandow wrote in the Wall Street Journal in December, 1998 that Ozawa "had taken control of the school with what many people thought was surprising and abrupt brutality. Members of the faculty, themselves world-famous, had angrily resigned." The first departure was in the fall of 1996, when Ozawa fired Richard Ortner, the Festival's administrator. After a tumultuous season, at the end of summer 1997, pianist Gilbert Kalish resigned from the faculty by sending Ozawa what the pianist/conductor Leon Fleisher later described as "a blistering letter of resignation, and he made it public"; Fleisher, who was also a long-term member of the Tanglewood faculty, wrote, "Most of the faculty felt he was speaking for them." Ozawa reduced Fleisher's role at the Center, offering him instead a "ceremonial puppet role," and Fleisher resigned, writing to Ozawa that the proposed role was "somewhat akin to having my legs chopped off at the knees, you then gently taking me by the arm and inviting me for a stroll. I must decline the invitation." (On the other hand, music critic Richard Dyer wrote that "...not every change was for the better...But there can be no question that Tanglewood is a busier, more adventurous, and more exciting place than it was before Ozawa became music director." )
A more basic concern involved perceived shortcomings in Ozawa's musical leadership; as Sandow wrote in the 1998 article, "what mattered far more was how badly the BSO plays." He noted that a group of Boston Symphony musicians had privately published a newsletter, Counterpoint, expressing their concerns; in the summer of 1995 concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and principal cellist Jules Eskin wrote that in rehearsal Ozawa gave no "specific leadership in matters of tempo and rhythm," no "expression of care about sound quality," and no "distinctly-conveyed conception of the character of each piece the BSO plays."
The BSO's managing director, Mark Volpe, responded that some board members considered Sandow's article a "hatchet job," and some unnamed BSO "observers" were said in the Boston Globe to believe that Sandow "might be sharpening blades for BSO members with axes to grind". Sandow called the suggestion "nonsense," saying, "I found them [players criticizing Ozawa in his article], they didn't find me". André Previn wrote to the Wall Street Journal defending Ozawa, and Lowe wrote to the Journal that he was "frustrated and upset to see my name attached to the article since your reporter did not contact me and chose to quote a letter published nearly four years ago in an internal orchestra publication." Boston Symphony Board of Trustees president Nicholas T. Zervas described Sandow as expressing an "`insulting, reductive, and racist view of [Ozawa] as a samurai kept in place in order to raise Japanese money" - a point Sandow rebutted in a letter to the Journal, saying "These are things I didn’t say. I’d heard the charge about Japanese money while I was writing my piece, so I asked Mark Volpe, the BSO’s General Manager, what he thought of it. Mark refuted it, and I quoted him approvingly." Critic Lloyd Schwarz defended Sandow in the Boston alternative paper, The Boston Phoenix
Various current music critics describe a decline in the orchestra's playing during Ozawa's tenure. Jan Swafford writes, "Now and then he gave a standout performance, usually in the full-throated late-Romantic and 20th-century literature, but most of the time what came out was glittering surfaces with nothing substantial beneath: no discernable concept, no vision." In a 2013 survey of recordings of The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, a New Yorker music critic, the composer Russell Platt, writes of "Seiji Ozawa’s downright depressing account, recorded in 1979: the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s sonic shine, developed by Ozawa’s predecessors Monteux and Charles Munch, is audibly dripping away, its dispirited musicians losing their sense of individual responsibility to the score. It is a record of a professional relationship that went on far too long."
On June 22, 1999, the symphony announced Ozawa's departure as music director, as of 2002, following the sudden announcement of Ozawa's appointment as music director of the Vienna State Opera - a decision the board had heard about only a day earlier, where Volpe said he was "a little surprised at the timing". He gave his last concert with the orchestra in July 2002.
In 2004, James Levine became the first American-born music director of the BSO. Levine received critical praise for revitalizing the quality and repertoire since the beginning of his tenure, including championing contemporary composers. During Levine's tenure, by February 2009 the BSO had performed 18 world premieres, 12 of them conducted by Levine. To fund the more challenging and expensive of Levine's musical projects with the orchestra, the orchestra established an "Artistic Initiative Fund" of about US$40 million. (As of March, 2013, the Boston Symphony also claimed an endowment of US$413 million, largest of any orchestra in the world.) Levine suffered from recurring injuries and health problems during his BSO tenure, which led to his resignation as BSO music director as of September 1, 2011.
In the wake of Levine's resignation, Andris Nelsons made his first guest-conducting appearance with the BSO in March 2011, as an emergency substitute for Levine at Carnegie Hall in Mahler's Symphony No. 9. He subsequently guest-conducted the BSO at Tanglewood in July 2012, and made his first appearance with the BSO at Symphony Hall in January 2013. In May 2013, the BSO named Nelsons as its 15th music director, effective with the 2014-2015 season. His initial contract is for 5 years, with 8–10 weeks of scheduled appearances in the first year of the contract, and 12 weeks in subsequent years. Nelsons held the title of Music Director Designate for the 2013-2014 season. In August 2015, the BSO announced the extension of Nelsons' contract as music director through the 2021-2022 season, with a new contract of 8 years to replace the initial 5-year contract, and which also contains an evergreen clause for automatic renewal.
The Boston Pops Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra minus its principal players, was founded in 1885, and plays lighter, more popular classics, and show tunes. Arthur Fiedler was the conductor who did the most to increase the fame of the Boston Pops over his tenure from 1930 to 1979. Film composer John Williams succeeded Fiedler as the conductor of the Pops from 1980 to 1993. Since 1995, the conductor of the Boston Pops has been Keith Lockhart.
The Boston Symphony Chamber Players were launched in 1964. Today they are the only chamber ensemble composed of principal players from an American symphony orchestra. In addition to regular performances in Boston and Tanglewood, they have performed throughout the United States and Europe. They have also recorded for RCA Victor, DG, Philips, and Nonesuch.
Performing with the BSO and Boston Pops for major choral works is the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Organized in 1970 by its founding director, John Oliver, the Chorus comprises 250 volunteer singers. Before the creation of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and for some time after, the BSO frequently employed the New England Conservatory Chorus conducted by Lorna Cooke DeVaron, Chorus Pro Musica, Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society. In February 2017, the BSO announced the appointment of James Burton as the new conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and as the newly created BSO Choral Director, both with immediate effect.
The Boston Symphony made its first acoustical recordings in 1917 in Camden, New Jersey for the Victor Talking Machine Company conducted by Karl Muck. Among the first discs recorded was the finale to Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony. Under Serge Koussevitzky, the orchestra made its first electrical recordings, also for Victor, in the late 1920s. These electrical recordings included Ravel's Boléro. Recording sessions took place in Symphony Hall. Koussevitszy's final recording with the Boston Symphony was a high fidelity version of Sibelius' Symphony No. 2, recorded in 1950 and released on LP.
In February 1954, RCA Victor began recording the orchestra in stereo, under the direction of Charles Munch. RCA Victor continued to record Munch and the orchestra through 1962, his final year as music director in Boston (see the Charles Munch discography for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO under Charles Munch). During Munch's tenure, Pierre Monteux made a series or records with the BSO for RCA Victor (see Pierre Monteux for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO).
Erich Leinsdorf, who had already made numerous recordings for RCA Victor, continued his association with the company during his seven years in Boston. These included a critically acclaimed performance of Brahms' German Requiem (see Erich Leinsdorf for a complete list).
Then, the orchestra switched to Deutsche Grammophon (DG) under William Steinberg. RCA Victor recorded several LPs with Steinberg and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with Georges Prêtre during the transition to DG (see William Steinberg for a complete list of commercial recordings). Michael Tilson Thomas, who was assistant conductor and associate conductor under Steinberg, also made several recordings for DG; some of these have been reissued on CD.
Due to Steinberg's illness, DG recorded the BSO with Rafael Kubelík in Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 (part of his cycle of Beethoven symphonies with nine different orchestras), Ma Vlast by Bedřich Smetana and in Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra as well as with Eugen Jochum conducting Symphony No. 41 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert's Symphony No. 8.
As a guest conductor in the 1960s, Ozawa made several recordings with the BSO for RCA Victor. He continued the BSO relationship with DG while making several other releases for New World Records. Over the course of Ozawa's tenure, the BSO diversified its relationships, making recordings under Ozawa with CBS, EMI, Philips Records, RCA, and TELARC.
The BSO also recorded for Philips under Colin Davis. Leonard Bernstein made records for both Columbia and DG with the BSO, including selections from his last concert ever as a conductor on 19 August 1990 at Tanglewood. The BSO has also appeared on Decca with Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Charles Dutoit and André Previn for DG, and on Phillips and Sony Classical with Bernard Haitink.
The BSO has also done recording for film scores on occasion. Films such as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan (both composed and conducted by John Williams) were recorded by the orchestra at Symphony Hall.
In the James Levine era, the BSO had no standing recording contract with a major label; the Grammy Award-winning recording of Levine conducting the BSO with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs, released on Nonesuch Records, was the only major label recording during Levine's tenure. On February 19, 2009, the BSO announced the launch of a new series of recordings on their own label, BSO Classics. Some of the recordings are available only as digital downloads. The initial recordings included live concert performances of William Bolcom's 8th Symphony and Lyric Concerto, the latter with flutist James Galway, Mahler's Sixth Symphony, the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem, and Ravel's complete Daphnis et Chloé, which won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.
In April 2015, the BSO announced a new recording partnership with Deutsche Grammophon that focuses on the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, with Nelsons as conductor. The first recording in the series, of the Tenth Symphony recorded in concert in April 2015, was released on CD in August 2015, and subsequently won the year's Grammy award for Best Orchestral Performance.
In the 1974–1975 American television situation comedy Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers, several cast members played fictional personnel of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The show's star, Paul Sand, portrayed Robert Dreyfuss, who played double bass, while Steve Landesberg played violinist Fred Meyerbach. Craig Richard Nelson was the orchestra's conductor, Mason Woodruff, and Dick Wesson was its manager, Jack Riordan. In one episode, Robert's father Ben, played by Jack Gilford, had a job in the orchestra's ticket office. Guest stars who appeared as musicians playing in or with the orchestra during the show's 15-episode run included Henry Winkler as a cellist, Leon Askin as a violinist, and Susan Neher as a flutist.