The Detroit Symphony was founded in 1914 by ten Detroit society women who each contributed $100 to the organization and pledged to find 100 additional subscribers. They soon hired the orchestra's first music director, Weston Gales, a 27-year-old church organist from Boston. The orchestra's first performance was held on February 26, 1914 at the old Detroit Opera House.
The appointment of the Russian pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch as music director in 1918 brought instant status to the new orchestra. A friend of composers Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Gabrilowitsch demanded a new auditorium be built as a condition of his accepting the position. Orchestra Hall was completed for the new music director in 1919 in four months and twenty-three days. Under Gabrilowitsch, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra quickly became one of the most prominent orchestras in the country, performing with the leading artists of the day. In 1922, the orchestra gave the world's first radio broadcast of a symphony orchestra concert with Gabrilowitsch conducting and guest artist Artur Schnabel at the piano. From 1934 to 1942, the orchestra performed for millions across the country as the official orchestra of The Ford Sunday Evening Hour (later the Ford Symphony Hour) national radio show.
In 1939, three years after Gabrilowitsch's premature death, the orchestra moved from Orchestra Hall to the Masonic Temple Theatre due to major financial problems caused by the Great Depression. The orchestra disbanded twice in the 1940s as it moved around three different performing venues. In 1946, the orchestra moved to the Wilson Theatre which was renamed Music Hall. In 1956, the orchestra moved to Ford Auditorium on the waterfront of the Detroit River, where it remained for the next 33 years. The orchestra once again enjoyed national prestige under music director Paul Paray, winning numerous awards for its 70 recordings on the Mercury label. Paray was followed by noted music directors Sixten Ehrling, Aldo Ceccato, Antal Doráti, and Günther Herbig.
In the realm of popular music, the orchestra provided the recorded string accompaniments on many of Motown Record's classic hits of the 1960s, usually under the direction of the orchestra's concertmaster of the time, Gordon Staples. Two Motown albums featured the strings with the Motown rhythm section the Funk Brothers. The combined ensemble was known as the San Remo Golden Strings and enjoyed two hit singles: ‘Hungry for Love' (#3 Adult Contemporary) and ‘I'm Satisfied', which charted on the Billboard Top 100. In 1966 members of the orchestra were seen recording in the Motown studio on W. Grand Boulevard with The Supremes for the ABC-TV documentary ‘Anatomy of Pop: The Music Explosion'. The song they perform is the hit ‘My World is Empty Without You' by Holland, Dozier, and Holland.
In 1970 the DSO instituted the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra as a training group, under Paul Freeman.
In 1989, following a 20-year rescue and restoration effort, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra returned to Orchestra Hall. Further renovations to the hall were completed in 2003 including a $60 million addition and a recital hall and education wing, the Max M. Fisher Music Center. A fine arts high school, the Detroit School of Arts, was added to the DSO campus in 2004.
The symphony has produced many recordings on the Victor, London, Decca, Mercury, RCA, Chandos and DSO labels. The DSO recording of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was the first CD to win the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque award.
Neeme Järvi began his music directorship in 1990, and served through 2005, the second-longest in the orchestra's history. After a five-year search, the DSO announced on October 7, 2007, the appointment of Leonard Slatkin as its twelfth music director. Prior to Slatkin's appointment, Peter Oundjian was the DSO's Artistic Advisor, and continues to hold the title of Principal Guest Conductor. In February 2010, the orchestra announced the extension of Slatkin's contract as DSO music director through the 2012-2013 season. This also included an announcement that Slatkin would take a salary reduction to help relieve the financial difficulties of the orchestra.
In early 2010 George Blood Audio and Video (in Philadelphia, PA) began transferring recordings, dating back to the 1959-1960 concert season, to the digital medium.