Ever since the opening of the Milan Teatro alla Scala, in 1778, the theater's orchestra has played a central role in the city's rich musical life.
Early in the 19th century, La Scala was already the leading opera house in Italy; by the 1830s, La Scala was one of the greatest international opera houses, producing numerous operas, including masterpieces by Rossini and Verdi. Consequently, the orchestra often played under prominent conductors, who insisted on maintaining the highest level of performance. Recognized for its excellence, the orchestra, led by Franco Faccio, started giving concerts in 1872 . In 1878, the orchestra performed in Paris during the Exposition. The triumphant Paris tour led to the creation, in 1879, of a permanent concert organization, the Società Orchestrale della Scala, under Faccio's directorship. The orchestra, which had two annual concert seasons, not only maintained its impressive level of performance, but also indirectly encouraged the revival of instrumental music in Italy. In 1920, La Scala became a self-governing organization, named Ente Autonomo del Teatro alla Scala. Among the early, and momentous, decisions made by the new organization was the appointment of Arturo Toscanini as artistic director. Toscanini restructured the orchestra, enlarging it to 100 players. During the Toscanini era, which ended in 1929, the orchestra went on several acclaimed international tours, establishing its reputation as a world-class ensemble. Toscanini's successors included notable conductors, such as Victor de Sabata and Carlo Maria Giulini, who was principal conductor from 1954 to 1956. In 1968, Claudio Abbado became principal conductor of La Scala, assuming the post of music director in 1972, and, in 1976, rising to the position of artistic director, which he held until 1986. The orchestra entered a new phase in 1982, when Abbado reorganized it as the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Scala (L'Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala). The idea behind this reorganization was the desire to enable the orchestra to successfully compete with other leading international ensembles. In terms of programming and artistic policy, the orchestra enjoys complete autonomy in relation to the theater. Led by Riccardo Muti since 1987, the orchestra has attracted many eminent guest conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Valery Gergiev, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Gisueppe Sinopoli, and Yuri Temirkanov. Daniel Barenboim succeeded Muti, beginning in 2006. The orchestra's many acclaimed recordings include the complete set of Beethoven's symphonies, with Giulini, for the Sony Classical label.