It was founded in 1918 by several musicians as a private society called "Society of Profesional Musicians for Mutual Cultivation of the Arts". It had paying members and the aim was to make music for personal pleasure without pursuit of gain. The first musical director was Willem Felzer, who was the manager of two Rotterdam music schools. Felzer was succeeded by Alexander Schmuller for two years.
In May 1930, Eduard Flipse was appointed conductor, a position he held until 1962. Under his lengthy stewardship, the amateur ensemble evolved into a professional orchestra.
When Flipse took over from Felzer and Schmuller, the orchestra was in poor shape both financially and artistically. However, Filpse had both managerial skills and musical vision. He established an "Instrument Fund" to raise funds for new instruments and other necessities, and the orchestra became known for its special attention to contemporary music, featuring the work of Dutch composers such as Johan Wagenaar, Willem Pijper and Alphons Diepenbrock. A 1300-seat concert hall, the Doelen, was built in 1935, and the orchestra was rewarded by rising attendance numbers. When the Rotterdam City Council began to subsidize the orchestra, its problems seemed to be in the past.
On May 7, the orchestra played a concert of Bruch and Stravinsky in a celebration of Flipse's first ten years as conductor. In June 1940, Rotterdam was planning to celebrate its six hundredth birthday and the Rotterdam Philharmonic planned a special program. However, on May 14, Nazi German bombed Rotterdam and nearly completely destroyed it, thereby launching its occupation of the Netherlands which lasted for the duration of World War II. The Doelen was destroyed, as was a rehearsal facility, with most of the music library and all of the orchestra's instruments.
Despite the problems, the orchestra season finished according to plan, thanks to several other Dutch orchestras who gave concerts to raise money and helped with equipment and sheet music. The Koninginnekerk, one of the few churches that survived the bombing, became the new concert hall.
Unfortunately, the rules of the new Cultuurkamer, an organization meant to regulate the arts in the Netherlands. were severely restrictive. Every musician had to become a member of the Cultuurkamer, Jewish musicians had to be fired, and music by Jewish composers was banned, as was music from countries at war with Nazi Germany.
After the war, the orchestra lacked a permanent home until a new concert hall, also called the Doelen, was built in 1966. Accoustically, It is considered one of the finest modern concert halls in the world.
After Flipse retired as music director in 1962, he was followed by Franz Paul Decker (1962-1967) and Jean Fournet (1968-1973). In 1967, the young Dutch conductor Edo de Waart was appointed conductor of the orchestra; he also served as music director from 1973 to 1979. Under De Waart, the Rotterdam grew into an orchestra of international stature, making many recordings and sucessful international tours.
From 1983 to 1991, the American conductor James Conlon was Rotterdam's music director. Since 1995, the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, the conductor of the Kirov Opera, has led the orchestra.