Through the leadership of some of the 20th century's greatest conductors, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has emerged as one of a handful of orchestras that can be safely regarded as the finest in the world. As Chicago, a major financial, manufacturing, shipping, and packing center on Lake Michigan, developed, so too did its musical life. In the early part of the nineteenth century the city was a major destination for touring ensembles; from 1850 to 1858 the city boasted the first important orchestra of its own, the Chicago Philharmonic. In 1890, Ferdinand W. Peck and other music lovers incorporated the Chicago Orchestral Association and hired German-born Theodore Thomas to become its first conductor. The new ensemble gave its first concert at the Auditorium Theater on October 16, 1890.
The Chicago Orchestra, as it was then known, gained national and international attention when Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. During the months-long festivities, Antonín Dvorák conducted an all-Czech concert; Ignace Paderewski was a featured soloist with the orchestra; and Richard Strauss assumed the podium as one of the first of a string of distinguished guest conductors in the orchestra's history. The orchestra's permanent home, Orchestra Hall, was completed in 1904. After Theodore Thomas' death in the following year, the ensemble was renamed the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. In 1912 it assumed its present name, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Frederick Stock, who had served in the orchestra's viola section, became music director. To date, his 35-year tenure with the orchestra is the longest in its history. Stock and the orchestra made further history with a recording of Mendelssohn's Wedding March, the first-ever recording made by a major orchestra under an American music director. In 1920 Stock founded the Civic Music Student Orchestra (now the Civic Orchestra of Chicago), the first American training ensemble affiliated with a permanent professional orchestra.
The year 1934, the hundredth anniversary of the incorporation of Chicago, saw another World's Fair in the city, the Century of Progress Exposition. In three months the orchestra played 125 concerts on the fairgrounds. In commemoration of the orchestra's own fiftieth anniversary in 1940, Stock commissioned a series of new works that included contributions from Darius Milhaud, John Alden Carpenter, Roy Harris, and Igor Stravinsky.
During the Depression, meanwhile, a long-standing outdoor summer music series at Ravinia Park had gone bankrupt. In 1936, the CSO played its first concert at Ravinia, reviving the series and creating one of America's great summer musical events. In 1941, Stock hired the CSO's first full-time female member, hornist Helen Kotas.
After Stock's death in 1943, the all-but-forgotten Desire Dufauw became music director until 1947, ushering in a decade of short, turbulent tenures. Artur Rodzinski led the orchestra from 1948 to 1950, Rafael Kubelik from 1950 to 1953. Kubelik initiated the orchestra's great series of Mercury "Living Presence" recordings. With the arrival of the uncompromising Fritz Reiner in 1953, the orchestra entered a period during which it achieved unprecedented excellence. Reiner's recordings with the CSO on the RCA Victor label were a triumph of early stereo technology, and those of Strauss and Bartók (including Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, the first CSO recording to win a Grammy) remain, in the estimation of many, unsurpassed. Under Reiner, the orchestra engaged the outstanding Indiana-born choral conductor Margaret Hillis to build a permanent Chicago Symphony Chorus, which quicky evolved into a world-class ensemble in its own right.
Reiner's decade at the helm was followed by another troubled and relatively brief directorship, that of conductor Jean Martinon (1963-1968). His "French" sound and repertory displeased critics and traditionalists.
Georg Solti's arrival as music director in 1969 marked the beginning of another great era in the orchestra's history. Solti took the CSO on its first overseas tour in 1971; both he and the orchestra garnered lavish (and sometimes astonished) praise during their month-long visit to Europe. In a gesture rarely afforded even the greatest musicians, Chicago gave the members of the orchestra a ticker-tape parade upon their return. In 1989, Solti stepped down as music director and was replaced by Daniel Barenboim. Under Barenboim, his successor Riccardo Muti, and highly regarded guest conductors like Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink, the orchestra has enjoyed a continued worldwide reputation, evidenced by its multiple Grammy Awards and other honors. In total, the CSO has appeared on over 900 recordings and collected dozens of Grammy awards, more, in fact, than any other individual or ensemble.