Theodore Thomas

History of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra — consistently hailed as one of the world’s best — marks its 133rd season in 2023–24. The history of the ensemble began in 1889, when Theodore Thomas, the leading conductor in America and a recognized music pioneer, was invited by Chicago businessman Charles Norman Fay to establish a symphony orchestra. Thomas’s aim to build a permanent orchestra 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 conductors headed the Orchestra during the following decade: Désiré Defauw was music director from 1943 to 1947, Artur Rodzinski in 1947–48, and Rafael Kubelík from 1950 to 1953. The next ten years belonged to Fritz Reiner, whose recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are still considered hallmarks. Reiner invited Margaret Hillis to form the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1957. For 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. The CSO made its first overseas tour to Europe in 1971 under his direction and released numerous award-winning recordings. Beginning in 1991, Solti held the title of music director laureate and returned to conduct the Orchestra each season until his death in September 1997.

Daniel Barenboim became the Orchestra’s ninth music director in 1991, a position he held until 2006. His tenure was distinguished by the opening of Symphony Center in 1997, appearances with the Orchestra in the dual role of pianist and conductor, and 21 international tours. Appointed by Barenboim in 1994 as the Chorus’s second director, Duain Wolfe served until his retirement in 2022.

In 2010, Riccardo Muti became the Orchestra’s tenth music director. During his tenure, the Orchestra deepened its engagement with the Chicago community, nurtured its legacy while supporting a new generation of musicians and composers, and collaborated with visionary artists. In September 2023, Muti became music director emeritus for life.

In April 2024, Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä was announced as the Orchestra’s eleventh music director and will begin an initial five-year tenure as Zell Music Director in September 2027

Carlo Maria Giulini was named to the post in 1969, serving until 1972; Claudio Abbado held the position from 1982 to 1985. 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. From 2006 to 2010, Bernard Haitink was the Orchestra’s first principal conductor.

Jessie Montgomery was appointed Mead Composer-in-Residence in 2021. 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. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma served as the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant from 2010 to 2019. Violinist Hilary Hahn became the CSO’s first Artist-in-Residence in 2021.

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. Recordings by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus — including recent releases on CSO Resound, the Orchestra’s independent recording label launched in 2007 — have earned 65 Grammy awards from the Recording Academy.

From the Rosenthal Archives on Experience
In 1941, Frederick Stock appointed Helen Kotas to the position of principal horn, making her the first woman to hold a rostered position in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
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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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Can you connect Riccardo Muti to Ludwig van Beethoven with six degrees of separation? Find out here . . .
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Celebrating the 125th anniversary of the birth of the great American contralto Marian Anderson!
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Linda Wolfe remembers her great-grandfather — and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's second music director — Frederick Stock on the occasion of his 150th birthday
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Mildred Brown was a charter member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and became the first female concertmaster in the ensemble’s fourth season.
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