The orchestra was founded in 1881 by Henry Lee Higginson in Boston, Massachusetts. It went on to have several notable conductors, including Arthur Nikisch from 1889 to 1993, and Pierre Monteux from 1919 to 1924 who gave the orchestra a reputation for a "French" sort of sound which persists to some degree to this day. However, it was under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky that the orchestra became best known.
Under Koussevitzky, the orchestra gave regular radio broadcasts and established its summer home at Tanglewood, where Koussevitzky founded the Berkshire Music School (now Tanglewood Music School). Koussevitzky also commissioned many new pieces from prominent composers, including the fourth symphony of Sergei Prokofiev and the Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky. They also gave the premiere of Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, which had been commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation.
In 1973, Seiji Ozawa took over the orchestra, and remained the principal conductor until 2002, the longest tenure of any Boston Symphony conductor. He was succeeded by James Levine, the first American-born conductor to hold the post.
An offshoot of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is the Boston Pops Orchestra, founded in 1885, which plays lighter, more popular classics.