Both Dresden and Leipzig, Saxony's leading cities, claim to have Europe's oldest permanent orchestra, although Norway insists on Bergen's "Harmonien" being the oldest. While both German cities had municipal music as far back as the sixteenth century, the Dresdner Staatskapelle (created in 1548 as a court orchestra) can claim an unbroken history. Dresden was principally an operatic center, however, whereas Leipzig specialized in choral and instrumental music, the latter led by concertmasters. Only vocal music, secular or sacred, had "conductors." Local partisans insist the Collegium Musicum, founded by Telemann and extended by his successor Johann Sebastian Bach, was father of the orchestra that played its fist concert on March 11, 1743, in the Gewandhaus -- a garment mart -- although it didn't become the Gewandhausorchester officially until 1781. Notable concertmasters included Bartolomeo Campagnoli and Karl Matthaï, who presided consecutively from 1797 to 1835, when Mendelssohn was named Dirigent.
He was the first conductor to use a baton, to lead both choral and concert music, and to double the size of the orchestra (salaries, too). His 1841 revival of the St. Matthew Passion was the cornerstone of a Bach renaissance. Mendelssohn also sponsored contemporary music -- the world premieres of three symphonies by his friend Schumann plus Das Paradies und die Peri, Schubert's long-lost Ninth Symphony, his own Scottish Symphony and Violin Concerto. He invited Liszt and Berlioz as guest conductors (despite his dislike of the latter's Symphonie fantastique). Mendelssohn's premature death, however, in 1847 precipitated a crisis. Julius Rietz, newly appointed by the Leipzig Opera, was deputized (with Niels Gade and concertmaster Ferdinand David to assist), but continued at the opera until double duty exhausted him in 1854. By then Leipzig had commissioned a statue of Mendelssohn, unveiled in front of the "new" Gewandhaus he had inaugurated in 1840. The Nazis removed this in 1936, but the concert hall survived until Allied bombs destroyed it in 1943.
In 1860, Carl Reinecke followed Rietz for 35 conservative years, although he was devoted to Brahms, and invited Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Strauss to guest-conduct their works. His successor in 1895 was Artur Nikisch, one of the world's leading conductors (along with Mahler and Toscanini), who also accepted leadership of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1897. He continued to conduct both orchestras until his death in 1922, when Wilhelm Furtwängler followed, likewise in Berlin as well as Leipzig (where Charles Munch was concertmaster from 1926 to 1932). However, after seven years, he left the Gewandhaus to become a permanent guest conductor in Vienna.
By then the orchestra numbered 100, double the size of Mendelssohn's, which welcomed Bruno Walter as their new conductor. However, he was a Jew, so the Nazis forced his resignation in 1933 and installed Hermann Abendroth, who became conductor in 1934 and continued until the war disrupted musical life.
Herbert Albert took over for three postwar seasons (1946-1949) before Franz Konwitschny rebuilt the orchestra, then playing in the great hall of the zoo that was later remodeled as a congress hall. He remained music director until his death in 1962 (while rehearsing in Belgrade). Before Kurt Masur came in 1970, Leipzig had two more leaders: the Czech Václav Neumann (1964-1968), and Heinz Bongartz from Dresden.
During Masur's 27-year tenure, Leipzig built a "third" Gewandhaus (with two concert chambers, the larger one seating 1,900), which opened on October 4, 1981. Although Masur became music director of the NY Philharmonic in 1991, he stayed with Leipzig until 1997-1998, then handed the baton to Herbert Blomstedt, Tilson Thomas' predecessor in San Francisco, and before that the leader of state radio orchestras in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Hamburg, and Tokyo.