As befits a city that figures so prominently in American history, Boston is also home to one of the oldest surviving orchestras in the United States, and one of the finest in the world. The Boston Symphony Orchestra came into existence through the influence -- and deep pockets -- of Henry Lee Higginson, a banker who sought to establish a permanent, world-class orchestra in a city whose instrumental ensembles to that point had consisted mainly of ad hoc and amateur groups. The BSO, consisting mainly of German-born musicans and led by George Henschel, gave its first performance in a season of 22 pairs of concerts on October 22, 1881.
The fledgling orchestra thrived in the last decades of the 19th century under the leadership of Wilhelm Gericke (1884-1889), Arthur Nikisch (1889-1893), and Emil Paur (1893-1898); Gericke assumed the podium again in 1898 and led the orchestra for another several seasons. In 1900 the BSO moved from its original home, the Music Hall (now the Aquarius Theater), into the brand-new, acoustically magnificent Symphony Hall. Karl Muck assumed leadership of the BSO in 1906, but returned to his native Germany in 1908 to become the Generalmusikdirektor in Berlin. Muck returned in 1912, replacing Max Fiedler. With America's entry into World War I, Muck, an unapologetic German nationalist, found his position in jeopardy. Despite the intervention of Higginson, now 84, Muck was arrested in 1918 and detained as an enemy alien until the end of the war.
Henri Rabaud was engaged for one season in 1918 and was succeeded by Pierre Monteux, a brilliant and capable conductor whose résumé included leading the infamous premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps in Paris in 1913. The dynamic Serge Koussevitzky helmed the BSO from 1924 to 1949, ushering in what many consider the orchestra's golden age. Koussevitzky both brought the BSO to its highest standard and demonstrated an uncommon interest in new music; for the orchestra's anniversary season in 1931, he oversaw a commissioning series that yielded an outstanding body of works, including Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and works by Copland, Prokofiev, Respighi, Honegger, and Hindemith. Since Koussevitzky's tenure, the orchestra has maintained a tradition of podium stability under the batons of luminaries like Charles Münch (1949-1963), Erich Leinsdorf (1963-1968), William Steinberg (1968-1973), Seiji Ozawa (1973-2002), and James Levine (2002-present). Since the founding of the annual Tanglewood Music Festival in 1940, the BSO has served as the official resident orchestra of that institution.
In 1885 the BSO established a series of summertime Promenade Concerts; by 1900 these concerts had come to be identified by their famous Boston Pops moniker. The Pops became a solid institution after 1930 when Max Fiedler's son, Arthur, became their conductor; he led the group for an unprecedented 50 years. Fiedler was succeeded in 1980 by the Academy Award-winning composer John Williams; in 1995, the 35-year-old Keith Lockhart became the Pops' music director. Both the BSO and the Boston Pops are amply represented on recordings that range from repertoire staples to works commissioned and premiered by the ensembles to film scores.