Theodore Thomas

History of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is consistently hailed as one of the world’s leading orchestras, and in September 2010, renowned Italian conductor Riccardo Muti became its tenth music director. During his tenure, the Orchestra has deepened its engagement with the Chicago community, nurtured its legacy while supporting a new generation of musicians and composers and collaborated with visionary artists.

The history of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra began in 1889, when Theodore Thomas, then the leading conductor in America and a recognized music pioneer, was invited by Chicago businessman Charles Norman Fay to establish a symphony orchestra here. Thomas’s aim to build a permanent orchestra with performance capabilities of the highest quality was realized at the first concerts in October 1891 in the Auditorium Theatre. Thomas served as music director until his death in January 1905 — just three weeks after the dedication of Orchestra Hall, the Orchestra’s permanent home designed by Daniel Burnham.

Frederick Stock, recruited by Thomas to the viola section in 1895, became assistant conductor in 1899 and succeeded the Orchestra’s founder. His tenure lasted 37 years, from 1905 to 1942 — the longest of the Orchestra’s music directors. Dynamic and innovative, the Stock years saw the founding of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the first training orchestra in the United States affiliated with a major symphony orchestra, in 1919. Stock also established youth auditions, organized the first subscription concerts especially for children and began a series of popular concerts.

Three eminent conductors headed the Orchestra during the following decade: Désiré Defauw was music director from 1943 to 1947; Artur Rodzinski assumed the post in 1947–48 and Rafael Kubelík led the ensemble for three seasons from 1950 to 1953. The next ten years belonged to Fritz Reiner, whose recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are still considered performance hallmarks. It was Reiner who invited Margaret Hillis to form the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1957. For the five seasons from 1963 to 1968, Jean Martinon held the position of music director.

Sir Georg Solti, the Orchestra’s eighth music director, served from 1969 until 1991. His arrival launched one of the most successful musical partnerships of our time, and the CSO made its first overseas tour to Europe in 1971 under his direction, along with numerous award-winning recordings. Solti then held the title of music director laureate and returned to conduct the Orchestra for several weeks each season until his death in September 1997.

Daniel Barenboim was named music director designate in January 1989, and he became the Orchestra’s ninth music director in September 1991, a position he held until June 2006. His tenure was distinguished by the opening of Symphony Center in 1997, highly praised operatic productions at Orchestra Hall, numerous appearances with the Orchestra in the dual role of pianist and conductor, 21 international tours and the appointment of Duain Wolfe as the Chorus’s second director.

Pierre Boulez’s long-standing relationship with the Orchestra led to his appointment as principal guest conductor in 1995. He was named Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus in 2006, a position he held until his death in January 2016. Only two others have served as principal guest conductors: Carlo Maria Giulini, who  appeared in Chicago regularly in the late 1950s, was named to the post in 1969, serving until 1972; Claudio Abbado held the position from 1982 to 1985. From 2006 to 2010, Bernard Haitink was the Orchestra's first principal conductor. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma served as the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant from 2010 to 2019. Hilary Hahn became the CSO’s first Artist-in-Residence in 2021, a role that brings her to Chicago for multiple residencies each season.

Jessie Montgomery is the current Mead Composer-in-Residence. She follows ten highly regarded composers in this role, including John Corigliano and Shulamit Ran — both winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. In addition to composing works for the CSO, Montgomery curates the contemporary MusicNOW series.

The Orchestra first performed at Ravinia Park in 1905 and appeared frequently through August 1931, after which the park was closed for most of the Great Depression. In August 1936, the Orchestra helped to inaugurate the first season of the Ravinia Festival, and it has been in residence nearly every summer since.

Since 1916, recording has been a significant part of the Orchestra’s activities. Current releases on CSO Resound, the Orchestra’s independent recording label, include the Grammy Award–winning release of Verdi’s Requiem led by Riccardo Muti. Recordings by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus have earned 64 Grammy awards from the Recording Academy.


From the Rosenthal Archives on Experience
Adolph Herseth @ 100
Regarded as one of the greatest brass players of his generation, Adolph Herseth was principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for more than 50 years.
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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's first recordings
On May 1, 1916, Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made their first commercial recording: the Wedding March from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Columbia Graphophone Company.
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Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. premiere of Mahler's Seventh Symphony
One hundred years ago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the U.S. premiere of Mahler's Seventh Symphony. Second music director Frederick Stock conducted.
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Musicians of the Orchestra
Musicians of the Orchestra are featured as soloists in works by Debussy, Massenet, Schumann, Strauss, and Vaughan Williams!
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Reiner Conducts Copland, Hindemith & Prokofiev
Sixth music director Fritz Reiner leads the Orchestra in Hindemith's Cello Concerto with Principal Cello János Starker as soloist, along with music by Copland, Kodály, and Prokofiev.
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Sir Georg Solti: Grammy Champ
Eighth music director Sir Georg Solti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Grammy-winning recordings, including works by Berlioz, Haydn, Strauss, and Verdi!
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