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The History of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

BSO Music Directors

From the orchestra's founding in 1881, Henry Lee Higginson built the BSO upon musical traditions he learned to love as a student in Vienna.

A Transition in Leadership

  • 1881-1884

    Sir George Henschel, BSO conductor

    An accomplished vocal artist and friend of Brahms, the BSO's first conductor was selected by Henry Lee Higginson after a single guest performance with the Harvard Musical Association. Born in what was then German Silesia (now Poland), Henschel received his musical education in Germany before making his debut in England. That country became his permanent home and the scene of the numerous accomplishments as conductor, soloist, composer and educator that earned him a knighthood in 1914. His three-year stint with the BSO (1881-1884), which coincided with his marriage to a young Massachusetts soprano, helped instill the beginnings of a professional outlook in the newly fledged institution.

  • 1884-1889, 1898-1906

    Wilhelm Gericke, BSO conductor

    As a native of Austria's mountainous Styrian province, Wilhelm Gericke brought to his Boston assignment not only the sense of disciple and order essential to a successful musical ensemble, but also the sense of spaciousness that characterized the newer European music of his time. Poor health curtailed his initial five-year term with the BSO from 1884-1889, but an eight-year return engagement in 1898-1906 bridged the transition to a new century and made him the longest-serving conductor of the pre-Koussevitzky era. Among the innovations occurring under Gericke's conductorship were the commencement of regular performances in New York and other centers, the inauguration in 1885 of the Promenade Concerts, predecessors of the Boston Pops, and the move from the old Boston Music Hall to Symphony Hall in 1900.

  • 1889-1893

    Arthur Nikisch, BSO conductor

    A new breed of conductor was introduced to Boston audiences in 1889 with the arrival of 33-year-old Hungarian conductor Arthur Nikisch-a rising star from the Leipzig Opera who had been heavily influenced by Wagner and Seidl. Nikisch possessed remarkable personal magnetism that once prompted Tchaikovsky to remark that Nikisch really doesn't conduct, but, rather, "resigns himself to a magical enchantment."

  • 1893-1898

    Emil Paur, BSO conductor

    Like his predecessor Nikisch, the Austrian conductor Emil Paur had studied violin and composition at the Vienna Conservatory. Puar was very interested in performing the music of Brahms, which at that time was considered "new" music and proved to be very difficult for audiences at that time to accept.

  • 1906-1908, 1912-1918

    Karl Muck, BSO conductor

    From a list of 25 candidates including Gustav Mahler, Willem Mengelberg, and Hans Richter, Higginson settled on Karl Muck to succeed Gericke as BSO conductor. At Higginson's request, the German emperor released Muck from his duties as director of the Royal Opera House in Berlin. Among the landmarks of Muck's second Boston tenure were the BSO's first transcontinental tour (1915) and its first commercial recordings (1917). Higginson once referred to Dr. Muck as "the most industrious, painstaking and ablest conductor whom we have ever had." (July 9, 1917 letter to Harvard President Charles Eliot)

  • 1908-1912

    Max Fiedler, BSO conductor

    The German conductor Max Fiedler led the BSO between Karl Muck's two terms. (He was no relation to Arthur Fiedler.)

  • 1918-1919

    Henri Rabaud, BSO conductor

    It was not until September of 1918-just a few weeks prior to the season's opening-that Henri Rabaud, a Parisian composer and conductor, was announced as the BSO's seventh conductor. The Trustees had spent several months sending cablegrams to England, Italy, and France in an effort to secure the services of a prominent conductor to take the place of Karl Muck.

  • 1919-1924

    Pierre Monteux, BSO conductor

    Referred to as "the valiant Frenchman," Pierre Monteux led the BSO through a time of transition and rebuilding. In 1918, when Rabaud was unable to get to Boston in time for the opening of the season, Monteux, then conductor of French operas at the Metropolitan Opera agreed to lead the opening concerts. He so impressed the Trustees and Boston audiences that he was offered the conductor position in 1919. When the orchestra lost more than 30 of its members as a result of the March 1920 strike, a cool-headed Monteux rose to the occasion, keeping the season going with minimal disruption.

  • 1924-1946, 1947-1949

    Serge Koussevitzky, BSO conductor (1924-46), BSO Music Director (1947-49)

    Born in Vyshniy Volochek, Russia, July 26, 1874; Died in Boston, Massachusetts, June 4, 1951

    Beginning as a virtuoso performer on the double bass, Russian-born Sergei Alexandrovich Koussevitzky became one of the conducting giants of the twentieth century. His seventy-seven-year life span encompassed a dazzling array of innovative accomplishments as composer, maestro, music publisher, recording artist, new music champion, and proponent of musicians' rights. The Boston Symphony was unionized during his tenure, the last major American orchestra to take this step. It was also under Koussevitzky's leadership that the BSO became a truly world-class ensemble, known everywhere by its recordings and as celebrated for its sound as for a repertory that linked the classical with the best of contemporary European and American music. The commencement under Koussevitzky's guidance of what became the Tanglewood Festival and Music center perpetuated and enhanced the legend of this temperamental, erratic, towering musical genius.

  • 1949-1962

    Charles Munch, BSO Music Director

    Born in Strasbourg, Germany (now Strasbourg, France), September 26, 1891; Died in Richmond, Virginia, November 6, 1968

    Possibly the best-loved among past Boston Symphony leaders, Charles Munch was valued for his human qualities as for his superior musicianship. His Alsatian background and connection with the celebrated Schweitzer family assured him of a footing in both French and German cultures, and the first half of his life was passed largely, though not exclusively, in a German setting. From 1933 onward he was based in Paris, directing all of the major French orchestras and cultivating his relationship with the younger French composers whose work he was to introduce to the United States during his fourteen years as BSO Music Director and successor to Koussevitzky. Boston audiences appreciated the spontaneity of his performances no less than his charm of manner, and took pride in his leadership of the orchestra's first epoch-making tours of Europe in 1952 and 1956 and of Australia and the Far East in 1960.

  • 1962-1969

    Erich Leinsdorf, BSO Music Director

    Born in Vienna, Austria, February 4, 1912; Died in Zurich, Switzerland, September 11, 1993

    As the only BSO Music Director to serve in the Armed Forces of the United States, Austrian-born Erich Leinsdorf spent several months during 1943-1944 as a member of the U.S. Army at Fort Lee, Virginia, "amusing myself," as he later wrote, "by volunteering to give political orientation lectures to the troops." The anecdote reflects the versatility and intellectual breadth that were a part of Leinsdorf's strength as a conductor and sometimes embroiled him with orchestra players, managers and trustees. Earlier in his life, association with Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini in Europe had rounded out his Vienna-based musical training and prepared him for an American career that centered for many years at the Metropolitan Opera, primarily as a Wagner conductor. His seven years with the BSO as successor to Charles Munch featured a renewed emphasis on technical standards, a workload he himself described as "nothing short of mad," such innovations as the establishment of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and an unwavering emphasis on the guiding aim of "getting as close as possible to the great masters and their compositions."

  • 1969-1972

    William Steinberg, BSO Music Director

    Born in Cologne, Germany, August 1, 1899; Died in New York, New York, May 16, 1978

    Failing health and outside commitments limited the achievement of German-born William Steinberg as the twelfth among the BSO's permanent conductors. An early associate of Otto Klemperer and Arturo Toscanini, he held positions in Cologne, Prague, Frankfurt, and Berlin before leaving Germany in 1936 to become co-founder and first conductor of the Palestine Orchestra, later known as the Israel Philharmonic. In the United States, Steinberg worked with Toscanini as assistant conductor of the N.B.C. Symphony Orchestra and also served as music director at Buffalo and later at Pittsburgh, where he continued in charge even after being named to succeed Erich Leinsdorf as Music Director of the BSO. Disdaining sensationalism and histrionics, he impressed his concert-hall and television audiences by his integrity and straightforward rendering of the classical repertoire.

  • 1972-2002

    Seiji Ozawa, BSO Music Adviser (1972-73), BSO Music Director (1973-2002), Music Director Laureate (2002 – present)

    Born in Shenyang (Mukden), China, September 1, 1935

    With Seiji Ozawa the Boston Symphony entered a truly global era in which music became a universal language freed from regional or ethnic limitations. Born of Japanese parents in the short-lived Manchurian protectorate of Manchukuo, Ozawa mastered the essentials of his art in postwar Tokyo under the late Hideo Saito and gained international experience as a protégé of Charles Munch at Tanglewood and as assistant to Herbert von Karajan in Berlin and to Leonard Bernstein in New York. Serving as music director of the Chicago (Ravinia Festival), Toronto, and San Francisco Orchestras, he was also an artistic adviser at Tanglewood in association with Gunther Schuller. As the BSO's thirteenth Music Director, he led the Boston Symphony Orchestra into new realms of artistic expression and global involvement through innovative performance concepts, multiple recordings, radio and television appearances, and history-making tours of many of the world's major regions. When he stepped down in 2002 after twenty-nine seasons, he had surpassed Serge Koussevitzky as the BSO's longest serving Music Director.

  • 2004-2011

    James Levine, BSO Music Director (2004-2011)

    Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, June 23, 1943; Died Palm Springs, California, March 9, 2021

    Named Music Director Designate in October 2001, James Levine became the BSO’s fourteenth music director in the fall of 2004 – the first American-born conductor to hold that position. As BSO Music Director, he led wide-ranging programs that balanced great orchestral, operatic, and choral classics with equally significant music of the 20th and 21st centuries, including newly commissioned works from such eminent American composers as Elliott Carter, John Harbison, Leon Kirchner, Peter Lieberson, Gunther Schuller, John Williams, and Charles Wuorinen. His BSO recording of Ravel’s complete ballet Daphnis et Chloe won the Grammy Award in the category of Orchestral Performance in 2010. At the Tanglewood Music Center he conducted the TMC Orchestra and worked with the TMC Fellows in fully staged opera productions, including Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the American premiere of Carter’s What Next?. In 2007 he led the BSO in an acclaimed tour of European music festivals.

  • 2014-Present

    Andris Nelsons headshot

    Andris Nelsons, BSO Music Director

    Born in Riga, Latvia, 1978

    The fifteenth music director in the history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons made his BSO debut at Carnegie Hall in March 2011, his Tanglewood debut in July 2012, and his BSO subscription series debut in January 2013. His first CD with the BSO-live recordings of Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture and Sibelius's Symphony No. 2-was released in November 2014 on BSO Classics.

Overview of Dates

BSO Music Directors
Sir George Henschel 1881-84
Wilhelm Gericke 1884-89; 1898-1906
Arthur Nikisch 1889-93
Emil Paur 1893-98
Karl Muck 1906-08; 1912-18
Max Fiedler 1908-12
Henri Rabaud 1918-19
Pierre Monteux 1919-24
Serge Koussevitzky 1924-49
Charles Munch 1949-62
Erich Leinsdorf 1962-69
William Steinberg 1969-72
Seiji Ozawa 1973-2002; Music Director Laureate, 2002-
James Levine 2004-2011
Andris Nelsons 2014 - Present

BSO Assistant Conductors
Richard Burgin 1934-1943 (then Associate Conductor, 1943-1966)
Charles Wilson 1966-1969
Michael Tilson Thomas 1969-1970 (then Associate conductor 1970-1972 and then principal guest conductor, 1972-1974)
Joseph Silverstein 1971-1984
Carl St. Clair 1986-1990
Pascal Verrot 1986-1990
Grant Llewellyn 1990-1993
Robert Spano 1990-1993
Thomas Dausgaard 1993-1995
David Wroe 1993-1995
Richard Westerfield 1995-1997 (then Associate Conductor, 1997-1998)
Federico Cortese 1998-2002
Ilan Volkov 1998-2001
Jens Goerg Bachman 2004-2007
Ludovic Morlot 2004-2007
Julian Kuerti 2007-2010
Shi-Yeon Sung 2007-2010
Marcelo Lehninger 2010-2013
Sean Newhouse 2010-2012
Andris Poga 2012-2014
Ken-David Masur 2014-2017
Moritz Gnann 2015-2018
Yu-An Chang 2018 - 2020
Anna Rakitina 2019-Present
Earl Lee 2021-Present