The Gewandhausorchester is the oldest civic symphony orchestra in the world. The orchestra's nucleus was the concert society Das Große Concert, founded in 1743 by a group of 16 musical philanthropists, comprising noblemen and burghers alike. The ensemble took residence in its first genuine concert hall - adopting the name Gewandhausorchester - on moving to an upper hall of the textile merchants’ trading house in 1781.
The Gewandhausorchester is revered for its highly individual, warm, dark sound palette that clearly distinguishes it from other elite orchestras. This unique sound identity, along with the extraordinarily rich diversity of the repertoire which the Gewandhausorchester performs, is cultivated in almost 300 performances each year in the orchestra's three ‘homes’: as concert orchestra in the Gewandhaus, orchestra of the Leipzig Opera and orchestra for the weekly performances of the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach with the Thomanerchorin St. Thomas's Church.
At the time of the orchestra's founding, musical performance in Leipzig’s churches and theatres, as well as on secular festive occasions in the city, was the reserve of the Stadtpfeiffer (City Pipers), employed by the city council. Professional musicianship alongside the City Pipers developed only slowly, due to the particular rights and privileges with which the Pipers were endowed. Those wishing to be musically active were only able to do so in private salons or in the various Collegia musica. These student music associations were, as time passed, bolstered by the participation of the professional City Pipers, as indeed was the concert orchestra in its formative years. However, due to both the increasing technical demands placed upon them in their church and theatre duties and the increasingly large forces required, the City Pipers were, in 1773, left with no alternative but to ask members of the concert orchestra (founded in 1743) for assistance. This was a pivotal step that was to fundamentally change the structure of music-making in Leipzig over the subsequent century: the monopoly on professional musical performance shifted from the City Pipers to the concert orchestra, the members of which gradually displaced the Pipers from their established duties and venues.
The structure of the theatre, church and concert ensembles’ coexistence and cooperation - and the status of the musicians themselves - was subject to much revision in the subsequent years. The strain resulting from the exertion of the performances of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle at the New Theatre in 1878 finally provided the decisive impetus for a fundamental reorganisation of orchestral music-making in Leipzig, and sparked new discussions regarding the status of the musicians. In 1881, the city council enacted legislation providing for social security for all musicians of the Gewandhausorchester, while formalising the orchestra’s obligation to serve henceforth in church, in concert and in the opera. Since then, the Gewandhaus, the opera house and St Thomas' Church have shared one and the same orchestra: the Gewandhausorchester.