The earliest orchestral concerts known to have taken place in Birmingham were those organised by Barnabas Gunn at the Moor Street Theatre in 1740, and more than 20 separate orchestras are recorded as having existed in the city between that date and the foundation of what is now the CBSO in 1920. These orchestras often owed their origins to Birmingham's internationally significant tradition of choral music, that give birth to works such as Mendelsohn's Elijah and Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, and in 1834 saw the building Birmingham Town Hall, one of Europe's earliest large-scale concert halls. Birmingham's most notable early orchestra was the Birmingham Festival Orchestra, which formed as a group of 25 musicians in 1768 but by 1834 had grown into an orchestra of 147. Under Michael Costa and Hans Richter between 1849 and 1909 it included some of the leading instrumentalists of its day from across Britain and Europe, but remained an ad hoc grouping that assembled to play only at the three-yearly festivals. The town's first permanently established orchestra of locally based professional musicians was William Stockley's Orchestra, which was founded in 1856 and held annual concert seasons between 1873 and 1897. This was eclipsed as the city's leading orchestra at the end of the 19th century by George Halford's Orchestra, which put on similar series of concerts between 1897 and 1909.
Stockley and Halford established regular orchestral concerts as an expected feature of life in Birmingham which by the late 19th century supported a substantial pool of high quality locally based professional musicians. The period between 1905 and 1920 saw this demand for orchestral music met by a large number of competing enterprises. Halford's players reformed in 1906 as the self-governing Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which continued to perform until 1918 under notable conductors including Henry Wood, Hans Richter and Halford himself. Landon Ronald presented an annual season of promenade concerts at the Theatre Royal in New Street from 1905 to 1914 with a 70-strong orchestra made up largely of Birmingham-based musicians. Appleby Matthews and Richard Wassell both ran separate orchestras in their own names presenting annual series of concerts between 1916 and 1920; and Thomas Beecham conducted and promoted his own New Birmingham Orchestra between 1917 and 1919.
From 1916 onwards a group of influential local figures began to pursue the idea of a single, permanent, municipally funded orchestra, in keeping with the Civic Gospel tradition established in Birmingham under Joseph Chamberlain, that envisaged cities as having responsibility as a body for their citizens' civic, social and cultural welfare. Leading members of this campaign included Neville Chamberlain, who was Lord Mayor of Birmingham from 1916 to 1918; Granville Bantock, composer and Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham; and Ernest Newman, a leading Birmingham-based music critic, who had written as early as 1913 that the system of financial guarantees from wealthy patrons that had supported Birmingham's orchestras through the 19th century had become discredited. The group's first plan was to support Beecham's New Birmingham Orchestra, but this enterprise was wound up after the government requisitioned the Town Hall for the issue of First World War ration books, depriving it of its primary concert venue. A few weeks after the end of the war Bantock revived the idea and on 17 March 1919 he submitted a proposal to Birmingham City Council for an orchestra of 70 musicians to be engaged annually from October to May, at an estimated annual cost of £8,500 and with projected annual revenue of £6,000. The city council agreed to support the proposal with an annual grant of £1,250 for an experimental period of five years, the first time that public funds had been used to support an orchestra anywhere in Great Britain.
The new orchestra's management committee met for the first time on 19 June 1919 and named itself the City of Birmingham Orchestra or CBO, probably to emphasise its civic status, though it also made clear that the CBO would be a self-governing musical body, not a municipal orchestra along the lines of those commonly found in seaside resorts. During its early years the orchestra was sometimes referred to as the Birmingham City Orchestra, or commonly just the "City Orchestra". The most suitable candidate for the Principal Conductor role was widely held to be Thomas Beecham, but he was pre-occupied with his own acute financial problems and had not forgiven the city for its failure to support his earlier New Birmingham Orchestra. As a result, a shortlist of four candidates was drawn up from the numerous applications for the post, though the initial one-year contract came to limit the choice to local applicants. The eventual appointee was Appleby Matthews, who had been running his own orchestra in the city since 1916 and had strong support from local music critics on the selection panel. Richard Wassell was appointed as Assistant Conductor.
Matthews' plan was to hold eight Saturday concerts and six Wednesday concerts each year at Birmingham Town Hall, with a series of 38 concerts of more popular programmes at cheaper venues on Sundays, continuing the tradition of Sunday popular classics established by his own orchestra over the previous five years. The CBO's first concert was given under Matthews' baton as part of the Sunday series at the Theatre Royal on 5 September 1920, with the first piece of music performed being Granville Bantock's Saul. After two months of preparing the orchestra with the popular concerts, the inaugural concert of the Symphony Concerts series was given at the Town Hall on 10 November 1920, with Edward Elgar conducting a concert of his own works. The first season continued with a remarkable series of programmes, including Ralph Vaughan Williams conducting his own London Symphony, Hamilton Harty conducting Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Adrian Boult conducting Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, Landon Ronald conducting Brahms’ Second Symphony and Jean Sibelius conducting his own Third Symphony. Two features that would become longstanding traditions for the orchestra were also established during this first year: performances of then-recent works by Holst, Vaughan Williams and Bax saw a strong representation of new music in the orchestra's programmes; and from February 1921 the orchestra's commitment to musical education was underlined with a series of concerts for city schoolchildren held in the Town Hall on Saturday afternoons.
Matthews had originally been appointed to be conductor with a fee of £450 for 30 concerts, but had persuaded the committee to give him instead the combined role of conductor, secretary and manager for a fee of £1,000 per year. He had only limited experience in any of these roles, however, and developed a difficult relationship with the politicians and businessmen who made up the CBO committee. His plan to supplement the playing strength of the orchestra with members of the Birmingham City Police band almost caused the orchestra to strike before it had even played a concert, and would result in questions in the House of Commons in December 1920. Matthews' conducting and his management were both poorly reviewed by Birmingham-based critics, though reviews from outside the city were more positive, with the Daily Telegraph being highly complimentary and the Manchester Guardian concluding "Manchester may well envy Birmingham its municipal music". Matthews' Symphony Series programmes were highly ambitious and enterprising, and he was able to claim that "the amount subscribed for Symphony Concerts constituted a record for any similar series of concerts in this city" but the Sunday concerts were loss-making, with the expensive seats often unsold. In 1922 Matthews was relieved of any involvement in the financial administration of the orchestra, popular concerts were increasingly moved to suburban and out-of-town venues, and development and marketing plans were drawn up to stem a deficit which by May 1923 grown to £3,000. In July the orchestra and Matthews both engaged solicitors and in October Matthews was informed his contract was to be terminated, His final CBO concert was on 30 March 1924, and the relationship dissolved in acrimonious and expensive litigation.
The CBO committee had two candidates in mind to replace Matthews: Eugene Goossens and Adrian Boult. For a while they explored the possibility of appointing both as joint conductors, but were convinced by Ernest de Sélincourt that this idea was unworkable. Boult had recently replaced Henry Wood as the conductor of the Birmingham Festival Choral Society – possibly calculating that there might shortly be a vacancy with the City Orchestra – and in March 1924 he was announced in the press as the CBO's new Director and Conductor. At the age of 35 he already had a substantial international musical reputation, having studied at the Leipzig Conservatoire under Arthur Nikisch, conducted the world premier of Holst's The Planets at the age of 25, and worked for a period as chief conductor of Serge Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. The urbane, Oxford-educated Boult was also comfortable dealing with influential local citizens, ensuring the orchestra retained the financial support it needed to continue. His tenure at the CBO would mark the start of a "golden period" for the orchestra that would see it rise to national prominence, outshining the struggling London orchestras and establishing Boult himself as a major figure of British musical life.
Boult brought a wider vision for the orchestra's future, building on Matthews' foundations but expanding beyond them. Some of the leading conductors in Europe were brought in to guest conduct, including Bruno Walter, Pierre Monteux, Ernest Ansermet and Ernő Dohnányi. Boult introduced lunchtime concerts at the Town Hall, inaugurated lectures about forthcoming music on the Thursdays before symphony concerts, invited students from the University of Birmingham to attend open rehearsals, and introduced free concerts for children during school hours. The orchestra made its first commercial recording in 1925. A more unusual experiment took place later the same year, when Saint-Saëns' Second Piano Concerto was performed at the Town Hall with Harold Bauer as soloist, but with his part played not with him present but as a pre-recorded piano roll. A particular concern of Boult's was to reduce the effect of the summer break when, as with London's Queen's Hall Orchestra and Manchester's Hallé Orchestra, the CBO's musicians spent the summer working at seaside resorts and often picked up bad habits freelancing for pier orchestras. The committee felt unable at that time to meet Boult's desire to offer players permanent year-round contracts, but Boult tried to lessen the length of the break by initiating performances at public schools throughout the Midlands. and building up the orchestra's diary of out-of-town concerts.
The immediate impact of Boult's arrival was conveyed by the Birmingham Post reviewing his first season: "The strongest impression is of a very great gain in note accuracy, a much improved ensemble, and a high standard of playing from the string group. The advance made within a single season is so considerable as to be remarkable." The orchestra also moved into more adventurous repertoire, for example performing Bartók's Dance Suite less than a year after its composition, while the composer was little-known in England. The CBO's performance of Mahler's Fourth Symphony in 1926 was only the third performance of any Mahler symphony given in Britain, and that of Das Lied von der Erde was only the second time it had been performed in England. Both were followed shortly afterwards by performances by orchestras in London and marked the start of the gradual increase in interest in Mahler's work in Britain.
By 1926 the orchestra's finances had improved, helped by the City Council's decision in 1924 to allow Birmingham Town Hall to be used rent-free for the Symphony concerts and in 1925 to double the CBO's grant to £2,500 annually. Less positive was the collapse in October 1925 of the Town Hall's ceiling, leading the orchestra to move its concerts temporarily to Central Hall on Corporation Street. Expenditure on repairing the Town Hall put back prospects of the new concert hall that Boult had been promised, and the reconfiguration of the hall from one gallery to two – engineered by London-based architect Charles Allom without consulting any local musicians – created acoustic problems that would dog the orchestra until its move to Symphony Hall six decades later: the Birmingham Post wrote that "everything sounded strange" and complained of acoustic dead spots in the ground floor and lower gallery.
One aspect of Boult's time at the CBO was the development of an important relationship with the recently established BBC. The CBO's concert at Birmingham Town Hall on 7 October 1924 was the first orchestral concert anywhere in the world to be transmitted as an outside broadcast, and in 1924 and early 1925 the CBO was used to perform four "International Symphony Concerts" at Covent Garden in London, supplementing the BBC's own "Wireless Players" to form the "Wireless Symphony Orchestra", the forerunner of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 1927 the relationship became more problematic as the BBC stopped broadcasting CBO concerts as a result of national dispute with the Musicians Union, and in 1928 upgraded the orchestra at its Birmingham station, luring sixteen of the CBO's most important players away with full-time contracts. In May 1929 the BBC went a stage further, when the retirement of its Music Director Percy Pitt saw Boult offered the role as his replacement. Boult was happy in Birmingham and had planned to stay at least another ten years, but was encouraged to accept the BBC role by Henry Wood. He resisted John Reith's pressure to take up the BBC post immediately and agreed instead to perform a further final season with the CBO. He later said he regretted leaving Birmingham, which provided the only time in his career he was able to fully control his own programmes.
Four conductors were shortlisted to succeed Boult and were given trial concerts – Leslie Heward, Stanley Chapple, Julius Harrison and Basil Cameron – but Boult later described how "Heward very easily won the palm". Heward had studied conducting under Boult at the Royal College of Music, where Hubert Parry had described him as "the kind of phenomenon that appears once in a generation". He came to Birmingham from a highly successful period as Music Director of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and Conductor of the Cape Town Orchestra, where he had raised the standards of the orchestra's playing to the extent that they were invited to England perform at the Empire Exhibition in 1925. Despite this, his appointment was a gamble for the CBO committee, as he was still largely unknown to English audiences.
Heward soon gained the respect of the orchestra's players and the Birmingham audience for his formidable musicianship. His score-reading ability was exceptional and he was able to instantly diagnose problems in rehearsal - the CBO's flautist remarked that he had "never known a conductor who was so much respected by his players." He was also known for his honesty and integrity, sometimes restarting a public performance he felt to be substandard halfway through, saying "I'm sorry, we can do better than that." His programming in Birmingham was bold: 28 of the 41 pieces played in his first season were Birmingham premieres, and the orchestra became particularly known for its interpretations of Dvorak, Sibelius and modern British composers. The orchestra under Heward also began to attract front-rank soloists: Arthur de Greef and Nikolai Orlov performed in 1931; Artur Schnabel played Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto in 1933; Ernst Wolff, Arthur Catterall, Egon Petri, Frederic Lamond performed in 1934; Adolf Busch and Solomon in 1936; and in 1938 Béla Bartók played one of his own Piano Concertos.
Assistant Conductor Joseph Lewis followed Boult to the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1931. His eventul replacement, Harold Gray, had started his 55-year-long association with the orchestra as Boult's secretary and musical amanuensis in 1924, and had first conducted the orchestra in 1930 in Sutton Coldfield where he was organist at parish church. Heward was reluctant to talk to audiences and didn't enjoy performing for schoolchildren so Gray took over children's concerts in 1931 and was appointed Deputy Conductor in 1932.
The Symphony concerts under Heward drew excellent attendances, but audiences continued to drop for concerts of popular classics as competition from radio and the cinema for leisure time activity increased. Relief from the resulting financial pressure came through a series of arrangements with the BBC. In 1930 the broadcaster agreed to reduce its Birmingham orchestra to an octet – with the redundant musicians being auditioned by the CBO – in return for the CBO performing 13 studio concerts each season: an important step towards permanent year-round contracts for the CBO's players. In 1934 Percy Edgar and Victor Hely-Hutchinson agreed to establish the BBC Midland Orchestra playing 2-3 concerts a week, with Heward as conductor and 35 of its musicians shared with the CBO on 12-month contracts. The stability this brought meant that Heward could build on the achievements of the previous 15 years and by the late 1930s the CBO was playing to a standard comparable to the orchestras of major cities of continental Europe.
By 1939 the CBO's finances were looking sound and its future bright. The outbreak of World War II, however, saw the BBC disband its Midland Orchestra and lay off its musicians, many of whom were also leading players with the CBO. Birmingham Town Hall was commandeered for the war effort and the CBO cancelled all of its engagements, giving Heward six months notice of termination. Although the orchestra started performing again at the Birmingham and Midland Institute in October as the "City of Birmingham (Emergency) Orchestra" and was able to reinstate Heward on a series of temporary contracts,it had lost many of its prewar players, and would be composed only of part-time musicians for much of the war. Compounding the difficulties was Heward's illness. He had contracted tuberculosis during his period in South Africa and was already missing concerts with illness by 1934. Aggravated by overwork, smoking and heavy drinking, his condition deteriorated and he spent six months in a sanatorium from September 1939 to May 1940. He gave his first performance for over a year on 20 October 1940, but regularly had to cancel engagements after that, with most of the CBO's concerts during the period being conducted by Victor Hely-Hutchinson. On Boxing Day 1942 Heward was offered the post of Conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, tendering his resignation with effect from then end of the season, but he did not live to see out his contract, dying at his Edgbaston home in May 1943.
The CBO became a full-time organisation in 1944, changing its name to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1948. Chief conductors since then included Rudolf Schwarz, the composer Andrzej Panufnik, Boult in an emergency return for a season after Panufnik's sudden resignation, Hugo Rignold and Louis Frémaux. During this time, the orchestra made recordings and gave regular concerts.
The CBSO began to gain greater international renown after Simon Rattle became chief conductor in 1980. Under him, the orchestra increased its recording profile and became one of the leading ensembles in Europe, and gained a name for its interpretations of late romantic and 20th century works, especially those of Sibelius and Gustav Mahler. During this period, the orchestra moved from Birmingham Town Hall to a new home venue, Symphony Hall, inside Birmingham's International Convention Centre. The nearby CBSO Centre, a converted factory, houses management offices, rehearsal facilities, and is a concert venue in its own right, for more intimate performances. The CBSO Youth Orchestra has been affiliated with the CBSO since 2004.
Rattle was named music director of the CBSO in 1990. That same year, the post of Radcliffe Composer in Association was created, with Mark-Anthony Turnage filling the role. In 1995 Judith Weir became Fairbairn Composer in Association, followed in 2001 by Julian Anderson.
After Rattle relinquished his posts with the CBSO, Sakari Oramo became chief conductor in 1998, and music director in 1999. His CBSO work included the Floof! festival of contemporary music. He also championed the music of John Foulds in concerts and recordings. In 2001, the players rejected a contract that would have stopped extra payments for broadcasts and recordings, in the context of financial crisis at the CBSO. In addition, other controversy arose from the CBSO's demands from the Arts Council for a greater share of the Council's stabilisation fund, because of its reputation compared to other British orchestras. In 2008, Oramo stood down as music director and took the title of principal guest conductor for the 2008-2009 season.
In October 2007, the CBSO named Andris Nelsons as its next music director after Oramo, effective with the 2008–2009 season. Nelsons' initial contract was for 3 years. The appointment was unusual in that Nelsons had not conducted the CBSO publicly prior to his appointment, but only in a private concert and in a recording session. In July 2009, the orchestra extended Nelsons' contract for another 3 years, through the 2013–2014 season. In August 2012, the CBSO announced the further extension of Nelsons' contract formally through the 2014-2015 season, and then for subsequent seasons on the basis of an annual rolling renewal. In October 2013, the CBSO announced the conclusion of Nelsons' tenure as music director after the conclusion of the 2014-2015 season.
The CBSO's most recent principal guest conductor was Edward Gardner. He began in the post in September 2011, with an initial contract of 3 years, for 3–4 weeks of concerts per season. He concluded his tenure as CBSO principal guest conductor in July 2016. The CBSO's current associate conductor is Michael Seal, and its current assistant conductor is Jonathan Bloxham.
In July 2015, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla first guest-conducted the CBSO. She was subsequently engaged for an additional concert with the CBSO in January 2016. In February 2016, the CBSO named her as its next music director, effective September 2016, with an initial contract of 3 years. She is the first female conductor to be named music director of the CBSO. She conducted her first concert as CBSO music director on 26 August 2016. In December 2016, the orchestra learned of pending budget reductions of support from Birmingham City Council, on the order of 25%, effective April 2017.
The CBSO has recorded extensively for labels such as EMI Classics, Warner Classics, and Orfeo. The orchestra has also released recordings under its own self-produced label.