Otto Nicolai conducted a "Grand Concert" on March 28, 1842 in the Großer Redoutensaal which was presented by "all the orchestra members of the imperial "Hof-Operntheater". This "Philharmonic Academy", as it was originally called, is rightly regarded as the origin of the orchestra, because all the principles of the "Philharmonic Idea", which still apply today, were put into practice for the first time:
- Only a musician who plays in the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (originally Court Opera Orchestra) can become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic.
- The orchestra is artistically, organizationally and financially autonomous, and all decisions are reached on a democratic basis in a completely independent and autonomous way during the general meeting of all members.
- The day-to-day management is the responsibility of a democratically elected body, the administrative committee.
Despite a successful start,Otto Nicolai left Vienna permanently in 1847; due to this and the Revolution in Vienna (1848) the young enterprise almost collapsed. In 1860 the orchestra gained final stability thanks to subscription concerts and the cooperation with important conductors, composers and soloists (Otto Dessoff, Hans Richter, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt). In 1877 the Vienna Philharmonic had its first performance outside of Vienna at what was then known as the “Salzburg Musikfest” and it performed abroad for the first time at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 with Gustav Mahler conducting.
The orchestra has been a registered association since 1908. The only significant change in all those years was to switch, in 1933, from having one conductor for a complete season of subscription concerts to the present system of having various guest conductors within a season. The Philharmonic's close relationship to Richard Strauss, of course, is of great historical importance. Further musical highlights were artistic collaborations with Arturo Toscanini, the long-lasting cooperation with Wilhelm Furtwängler and – after 1945 – with honorary conductors Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan as well as the Vienna Philharmonic’s honorary member Leonard Bernstein.
The Vienna Philharmonic has performed approximately 7000 concerts since his creation on all five continents, has participated in the Salzburg Festival since 1922, is permanently guest at the Festival Wiener Festwochen, the Mozart Week in Salzburg or the Lucerne Festival, has been presenting Vienna Philharmonic Weeks in New York since 1989 and in Japan since 1993. The orchestra organizes the New Year's Concert, which is broadcast internationally in over 70 countries, and the Summer Night Concert Schönbrunn in the unique ambience of the gardens of Schönbrunn palace, attended annually by up to 120,000 people.