Boston Symphony Orchestra

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Boston Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1881 by Henry Lee Higginson, who was its director and financial backer until 1918. The orchestra performed at the Old Boston Music Hall for nearly 20 years until the 2,625-seat Symphony Hall was built in 1900; its concerts continue to be held there. The Boston Symphony's conductors have included Sir George Henschel (1881-84), Arthur Nikisch (1889-93), Karl Muck (1906-08; 1912-18), Pierre Monteux (1919-24), Serge Koussevitzky (1924-49), Charles Münch (1949-62), Erich Leinsdorf (1962-69), William Steinberg (1969-72), Seiji Ozawa (1973-2002), and James Levine (2004-). One of America's oldest orchestras, it has summer activities that include the Tanglewood Music Festival and the Boston Pops Concerts. The Pops orchestra, which began with "Promenade" concerts in 1885 and has had its present title since 1900, has been conducted by Arthur Fiedler (1930-79), John Williams (1980-93), and Keith Lockhart (1995-).

See studies by M. A. De Wolfe Howe (1931); H. E. Dickson (1969); J. Baker-Carr (1977); C. A. Vigeland (1991).

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is an American orchestra, based at Symphony Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.


The orchestra was founded in 1881 by Henry Lee Higginson. It went on to have several notable conductors, including Arthur Nikisch from 1889 to 1893, and Pierre Monteux from 1919 to 1924 who gave the orchestra a reputation for a "French" sound which persists to some degree to this day.

The orchestra's reputation increased most prominently during the music directorship of Serge Koussevitzky. 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 was closely involved with the creation of 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 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 Foundation at the instigation of Fritz Reiner and Joseph Szigeti.

Koussevitzky started a tradition that was to be continued by the orchestra with commissions by 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. On other occasions, they have commissioned works from various other composers, such as John Corigliano's Symphony No. 2 for the 100th anniversary of Symphony Hall.

In 1949, Charles Münch succeeded Koussevitzky who toured with the orchestra overseas for the first time, and also produced their first stereo recording in February 1954 for RCA Victor. Münch was succeeded in 1962 by Erich Leinsdorf, who served as music director for seven years until 1969. William Steinberg was then music director from 1969 to 1973. In 1973, Seiji Ozawa took over the orchestra and remained the Music Director until 2002, the longest tenure of any Boston Symphony conductor.

In 2004, James Levine became the first American-born music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Levine has received critical praise for revitalizing the quality and repertoire since the beginning of his tenure, including championing contemporary composers. To be able to fund the more challenging and expensive of Levine's musical projects with the orchestra, the orchestra has established an "Artistic Initiative Fund" of about US$40 million. This is in addition to the current endowment of the orchestra, which is the largest of any American orchestra at about US$300 million.

An offshoot of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is the Boston Pops Orchestra, founded in 1885, which 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 is Keith Lockhart.

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players were launched in 1964. They are still 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 the Europe. They have also recorded for RCA Victor, DG, Phillips, 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 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.

The BSO also benefits from its close association with the New England Conservatory, located just one block from Symphony Hall with several graduates now occupying BSO musician seats.

Violin virtuoso Willy Hess was concertmaster from 1904 to 1910. The current concertmaster is Malcolm Lowe.


The Boston Symphony made its first acoustical recordings in 1917 in Camden, New Jersey for the Victor Talking Machine Company with Karl Muck. Among the first discs recorded was the finale to Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony. Typical of acoustical recordings, the musicians had to crowd around a large horn that transferred the sounds to a recording machine.

It was under Serge Koussevitsky that the orchestra made its first electrical recordings, also for Victor, in the late 1920s. Using a single microphone for a process Victor called "Orthophonic," the first recordings included Ravel's Bolero. Recording sessions took place in Symphony Hall. Koussevitsky's final recording with the Boston Symphony was a high fidelity version of Sibelius' second symphony, recorded in 1949 and released on LP.

In February 1954, RCA Victor began recording the orchestra in stereo, under the direction of Charles Munch. RCA continued to record Munch and the orchestra through 1962, his final year as music director in Boston. (Please click Charles Münch discography for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO under Charles Münch.) During Münch's tenure, Pierre Monteux made a series or records with the BSO for RCA Victor. (Please click Pierre Monteux for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO under Pierre Monteux.)

Erich Leinsdorf, who had already made numerous recordings for RCA, continued his association with the company during his seven years in Boston. These included a critically-acclaimed performance of Brahms' German Requiem. (Please click Erich Leinsdorf for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO under Erich Leinsdorf.)

Then, the orchestra switched to Deutsche Grammophon under William Steinberg. RCA recorded a handful of LPs with Steinberg and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with Georges Prêtre during the transition to DG. (Please click William Steinberg for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO under William Steinberg.) Michael Tilson Thomas, who was an assistant 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 Kubelik in Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Ma Vlast by Bedrich Smetana and in Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra as well as with Eugen Jochum conducting Symphony No. 41 by Wolfgang Mozart and Franz Schubert's Symphony 8.

As a guest conductor in the 1960s, Seiji Ozawa made several recordings with the BSO for RCA Victor. Seiji Ozawa continued the BSO relationship with DG while making several other releases for New World. 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 its principal guest conductor, Sir Colin Davis. (Please click Sir Colin Davis for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO under Sir Colin Davis.) Leonard Bernstein made records for both Columbia and DG. It also appeared on Decca with Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Charles Dutoit and Andre Previn for DG, and on Phillips and Sony with Bernard Haitink. (Please click Bernard Haitink for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO under Bernard Haitink.) James Levine has recorded for Nonesuch.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra 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.

Music Directors



  • Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

See also

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