The Symphony of the Air grew out of Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra. NBC had hired the best musicians, many of them first chairs of their orchestras, specifically to perform with Toscanini on NBC's radio broadcasts. Toscanini built the group into a lean, precision orchestra, recognized around the world. NBC dissolved the group after Toscanini's retirement in the spring of 1954. Most of its members (with a few new players) reassembled as the Symphony of the Air and at 11:30 pm on September 21, 1954, made a recording to raise money. On October 27 they gave their first public concert. The concert was conductorless; they played the music the way Toscanini had drilled it into them.
Though the Symphony of the Air had no music director, Leonard Bernstein in effect led the orchestra during its first season. It was the Symphony of the Air that made the celebrated Omnibus TV program that played Beethoven's discarded ideas for his Fifth Symphony. The first season was a financial and artistic success, and included a triumphal State Department-backed Asian tour and a summer season in the Catskills that drew 60,000 ticket buyers.
A second Asian good-will tour was scheduled for the spring of 1956. Prof. Donald C. Meyer of Lake Forest College in Illinois has concluded that what happened next was character assassination by disaffected orchestra members, including one who was fired for drunken and immoral actions on the first tour and others who objected to the orchestra's hiring black and women players.
They went to Brooklyn Democratic Congressman John Rooney and charged there were communists in the orchestra. Rooney used the allegations (which Meyer has concluded were unfounded) to attack the Republican administration State Department in the election year of 1956, as payback for Joseph McCarthy's similar attacks against the Democrats before the 1952 campaign. As a result, the tour was cancelled. The orchestra lost its Mutual Radio contract, much of its financial support, and a lot of ticket sales. The incident, says Meyer, was not the direct cause of the orchestra's eventual demise, but did start the process, abetted by poor management decisions. Despite much artistic success, morale slipped. Debt piled up, and its quality eroded as up to half its original membership had left by the time it disbanded, deeply in debt, in 1963.
Even so, the Symphony of the Air was an important voice for new music, led by such conductors as Reiner, Bruno Walter, Bernstein, Monteux, and Beecham, and made outstanding recordings labels including Columbia, Vanguard, and United Artists. It recorded on RCA as "...His Symphony Orchestra" (e.g. "Morton Gould and his Symphony Orchestra"; "Leopold Stokowski and His Symphony Orchestra"). It was with the Symphony of the Air that 14-year-old Daniel Barenboim made his New York debut, and it was with it that Van Cliburn played in triumph at Carnegie Hall after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.