It was founded in 1882 by a group of 54 musicians who had broken away from an orchestra directed by Benjamin Bilse. In 1887, Hermann Wolff became its manager, and he managed to engage Hans von Bülow, one of the most esteemed conductors in the world. From then, the orchestra's star rose rapidly, with Hans Richter, Felix von Weingartner, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Johannes Brahms and Edvard Grieg all conducting the orchestra over the next few years.
In 1895, Arthur Nikisch became chief conductor. He was succeeded in 1923 by Wilhelm Furtwängler. The orchestra continued to perform throughout World War II, and after it continued with barely a break under the baton of Leo Borchard. When he died, Sergiu Celibidache took over. Furtwängler returned in 1952 until his death in 1954.
His successor was Herbert von Karajan, who remained with the orchestra until 1989. Under him the orchestra made many recordings and toured widely. Claudio Abbado became principal conductor after him, expanding the orchestra's repertoire beyond the core classical and romantic works into more modern 20th century works. In 2002, Simon Rattle, another conductor noted for his championing of modern music, took over.
Under Rattle, the orchestra has broken away from governmental control, and is now fully independent. Its official title is now the Berlin Philharmonic, or Berliner Philharmoniker.