Founded in 1862 by Benjamin Bilse under the name Bilsesche Kapelle (Bilse's Band), the original 60-member ensemble gained popularity. It was renamed and reorganized under the financial management of Hermann Wolff in 1882. Hans von Bülow
set the ensemble on its course of artistic excellence, beginning as principal conductor in 1887. He insisted on the highest musical standards, attracted world-renowned guest conductors such as Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Strauss, and supervised the renovation of the orchestra's home venue, a converted roller skating rink. Due to ill health, von Bülow resigned his position in 1892. The Philharmonic played at his funeral ceremony in February 1894.
Over the next several years, Wolff engaged a series of popular guest conductors including Hans Richter and Richard Strauss
. Then in 1895, Hungarian-born Arthur Nikisch was chosen as resident conductor and led the Berlin Philharmonic to its well-earned reputation as the most respected touring orchestra in Europe. He brought out the lyrical qualities for which this ensemble became famous.
Soon after Nikisch's death in 1922, the reins of leadership were given to Berliner Wilhelm Furtwängler. Over the next two decades, Furtwängler debuted works by the likes of Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Schoenberg. Important soloists were a regular feature during this period and included such luminaries as Paul Hindemith and Yehudi Menuhin.
Difficult economic times came after the worldwide financial crash in 1929 but the ensemble was able to survive through subsidies from the city of Berlin, the German government, and the Berlin Radio Network. Further hardship came when its home venue was destroyed by a bomb in January 1944. Performing in borrowed spaces, the orchestra continued even after the beloved Furtwängler was detained during the political vindication proceedings which took place after Hitler's fall in 1945. Leo Borchard was named resident conductor in May 1945, but was shot and killed by an Occupation soldier three months later. Sergiu Celibidache was chosen to follow Borchard and was widely acclaimed for his inclusion of contemporary repertoire, much of which had been banned during Hitler's reign. When Furtwängler was finally released in 1947, he and Celibidache shared the Berlin Philharmonic's podium until Furtwängler's death in 1954.
The members of the Philharmonic chose Herbert von Karajan as resident conductor in 1955. Under his leadership, the orchestra gained worldwide recognition. The Philharmonic began construction of a new concert hall in 1963. Designed by architect Hans Scharoun, the orchestra's home venue near Berlin's Brandenburg Gate seats 2,000 audience members and contains an impressive Schuke organ. Von Karajan also began the orchestra's tradition of committing five performances each season to twentieth century music.
Late in that 1989, following von Karajan's death, Claudio Abbado was chosen to continue the Berlin Philharmonic's tradition of musical excellence and polished performance and lead this world-renowned orchestra into the 21st century. He was succeeded in 2002 by Sir Simon Rattle.