A brief history of the Philharmonia Orchestra, from its 1940s origins through to today. Use the arrows to scroll through images from the Orchestra’s history below.

The Philharmonia Orchestra is one of the world’s great orchestras. Widely acknowledged as one of the UK’s foremost musical pioneers, and with an extraordinary recording legacy, the Philharmonia leads the field for its quality of playing, and for its innovative approach to audience development, residencies, music education and the use of new technologies in reaching a global audience. Together with its relationships with the world’s most sought-after artists, most importantly its Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonia Orchestra is at the heart of British musical life.


Today, the Philharmonia has the greatest claim of any orchestra to be the UK’s national orchestra. It is committed to presenting the same quality, live music-making in venues throughout the country as it brings to London and the great concert halls of the world. In 2015 the Orchestra celebrates its 70th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the foundation of its admired UK and international residency programme, which began in 1995 with the launch of its residencies at London’s Southbank Centre and Bedford’s Corn Exchange. The Orchestra also has long-term partnerships with De Montfort Hall in Leicester (Resident Orchestra since 1997), the Anvil in Basingstoke (Orchestra in Partnership since 2001), and, more recently, at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and Three Choirs Festival (Resident Orchestra).

The Orchestra performs more than 160 concerts a year, as well as recording music for films, computer games and commercial CD releases. Under Esa-Pekka Salonen a series of flagship, visionary projects at the Royal Festival Hall, where the Orchestra performs over 35 concerts a season, have been critically acclaimed. City of Light: Paris 1900-1950 (2015), City of Dreams: Vienna 1900 -1935 (2009), Bill Viola’s Tristan und Isolde (2010), Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók (2011) and Woven Words, a celebration of Witold Lutosławski’s centenary year (2013), are followed in the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons by Myths and Rituals, a major, five-concert festival of music by Igor Stravinsky. Further highlights in the Orchestra’s 70th anniversary London season include a three-concert series of Salonen conducting star pianist Lang Lang; Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting Rachmaninov’s major orchestral works; Andris Nelsons returning to London for Bruckner Symphony No. 8; and Jakub Hruša leading Mahler’s mighty Symphony No. 3.

The Philharmonia’s extensive international touring schedule continues in the new season. Following a tour to China with Vladimir Ashkenazy in June 2015, the Orchestra will tour to Germany and Prague with Christoph von Dohnányi and returns to Iceland for the first time in over 30 years. The Orchestra will also give concerts in Switzerland, France, Spain and Sweden and will appear in a major residency with Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Festival International d'Art Lyrique d'Aix-en-Provence.


During its first seven decades, the Philharmonia Orchestra collaborated with most of the great classical artists of the 20th century. Conductors associated with the Orchestra include Furtwängler, Richard Strauss, Toscanini, Cantelli, Karajan and Giulini. Otto Klemperer was the first of many outstanding Principal Conductors, and other great names have included Lorin Maazel (Associate Principal Conductor), Sir Charles Mackerras (Principal Guest Conductor), Riccardo Muti (Principal Conductor and Music Director), Kurt Sanderling (Conductor Emeritus) and Giuseppe Sinopoli (Music Director). As well as Esa-Pekka Salonen, current titled conductors are Christoph von Dohnányi (Honorary Conductor for Life) and Vladimir Ashkenazy (Conductor Laureate).


The Philharmonia Orchestra continues to pride itself on its long-term collaborations with the finest musicians of our day, supporting emerging as well as established artists. This policy extends into the Orchestra itself, where many of the players have solo or chamber music careers alongside their work with the Orchestra. The Philharmonia’s Martin Musical Scholarship Fund has for many years supported talented musicians at the start of their careers, including an Orchestral Award, which allows two young players every year to gain performing experience within the Orchestra.

The Orchestra is also recognised for its innovative programming policy, at the heart of which is a commitment to performing and commissioning new works by leading composers, among them the Artistic Director of its Music of Today series, Unsuk Chin. Since 1945 the Philharmonia Orchestra has commissioned more than 100 new works from composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Sir James MacMillan.


Throughout its history, the Philharmonia Orchestra has been committed to finding new ways to bring its top-quality live performances to audiences worldwide, and to using new technologies to achieve this. Many millions of people since 1945 have enjoyed their first experience of classical music through a Philharmonia recording, and today audiences engage with the Orchestra through computer games, film scores, and through its YouTube and Vimeo channels featuring award-winning documentary films, which have been watched by millions of people worldwide. An app, The Orchestra for iPad, released in December 2012, has sold tens of thousands of copies and featured in Salonen’s recent global advertising campaign for Apple’s iPad Air.

In May 2010 the Orchestra’s digital ‘virtual Philharmonia Orchestra’ project, RE-RITE, was launched in London, and then toured the UK and internationally, including to the Salzburg Festival. RE-RITE, devised with Esa-Pekka Salonen, secured the Philharmonia’s position as a digital innovator. Its follow-up audio-visual installation, Universe of Sound: The Planets, premièred at the Science Museum in spring 2012. Both installations were at the heart of a major two-year audience development and education initiative, iOrchestra (iOrchestra.co.uk), in South-West England during 2014 and 2015. iOrchestra attracted more than 100,000 participants in the South-West. The project also featured a pop-up interactive digital music installation, MusicLab, housed in a mobile trailer, which uses the latest technologies to create a series of hands-on musical games and interactions. Recognising its work in this field, the Orchestra won the RPS Award for Audiences and Engagement in 2010, 2012 and 2014 (and Creative Communication award in 2010) for these projects.

Recording and broadcasting both continue to play a significant part in the Orchestra’s activities, notably through its partnership with Signum Records, releasing new live recordings of Philharmonia performances with its key conductors. Recent releases include the completion of Lorin Maazel’s Mahler Cycle with a boxset of Mahler Symphonies No. 7, 8 and 9, and Bruckner Symphony No. 9 conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi, recorded live at the 2014 Salzburg Festival. Since 2003 the Philharmonia has enjoyed a major partnership with Classic FM, as The Classic FM Orchestra on Tour, as well as continuing to broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

July 2015