The NBC Symphony Orchestra was a radio orchestra established by David Sarnoff, the president of the Radio Corporation of America, especially for the celebrated conductor Arturo Toscanini. The NBC Symphony performed weekly radio concert broadcasts with Toscanini and other conductors and served as house orchestra for the NBC network. The orchestra's first broadcast was on November 13, 1937 and it continued until disbanded in 1954. A new ensemble, independent of the network, called the "'Symphony of the Air'" followed. It was made up of former members of the NBC Symphony Orchestra and performed from 1954 to 1963, notably under Leopold Stokowski.
Tom Lewis, in the ''Organization of American Historians Magazine of History'', described NBC's plan for cultural programming and the origin of the NBC Symphony:
:David Sarnoff, who had first proposed the "radio music box" in 1916 so that listeners might enjoy "concerts, lectures, music, recitals," felt that the medium was failing to do this. By 1937, RCA had recovered enough from the effects of the Depression for it to make a dramatic commitment to cultural programming. With the most liberal terms Sarnoff hired Arturo Toscanini to create an entire orchestra and conduct it. On Christmas night, 1937, the NBC orchestra gave its first performance—Vivaldi's ''Concerto Grosso in D Minor''—in an entirely refurbished studio in the RCA Building. "The National Broadcasting Company is an American business organization. It has employees and stockholders. It serves their interests best when it serves the public best." That Christmas night, and whenever the NBC orchestra played over the next 17 years, he was right.〔Lewis, Tom. "'A Godlike Presence': The Impact of Radio on the 1920s and 1930s," ''Organization of American Historians Magazine of History'' 6, Spring 1992.〕
Sarnoff devoted considerable effort and resources to create an orchestra of the first rank for Toscanini and NBC. Artur Rodziński, a noted orchestra builder and musical task master in his own right, was engaged to mold and train the new orchestra in anticipation of the arrival of Toscanini. It offered the highest salaries of any orchestra at the time and a 52-week contract.〔http://www.discogs.com/artist/279614-NBC-Symphony-Orchestra〕 Prominent musicians from major orchestras around the country were recruited and the conductor Pierre Monteux was hired as well to work with the orchestra in its formative months. A new large broadcast studio was built for the orchestra at NBC's Radio City Studios in Rockefeller Center, New York, "Studio 8-H". In addition to creating prestige for the network, there has been speculation that one of the reasons NBC created the orchestra was to deflect a Congressional inquiry into broadcasting standards.
The orchestra's first broadcast concert aired on November 13, 1937 under the direction of Monteux. Toscanini conducted ten concerts that first season, making his NBC debut on December 25, 1937. In addition to weekly broadcasts on the NBC Red and Blue networks, the NBC Symphony Orchestra made many recordings for RCA Victor. Televised concerts began in March 1948 and continued until March 1952. During the summer of 1950, NBC converted Studio 8-H into a television studio (currently in use for NBC's late-night comedy program ''Saturday Night Live'') and moved the broadcast concerts to Carnegie Hall, where many of the orchestra's recording sessions and special concerts had already taken place.〔Harvey Sachs, ''Toscanini''〕
Toscanini led the NBC Symphony for 17 years. Under his direction the orchestra toured South America in 1940 and the United States in 1950. The orchestra's guest directors included most of the leading conductors of the day: Monteux, Ernest Ansermet, Erich Kleiber, Erich Leinsdorf, Charles Munch, Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Bruno Walter, and the young Lorin Maazel, among others. The Italian conductor Guido Cantelli, Toscanini's protégé, was a frequent guests conductor in the orchestra's last seasons.
Leopold Stokowski served as principal conductor from 1941-1944 on a three-year contract following a dispute between Toscanini and NBC. During this time Toscanini continued to lead the orchestra in a series of public benefit concerts for war relief. He returned as Stokowski's co-conductor for the 1942-43 and 1943-44 seasons, resuming full control thereafter. Upon Toscanini's retirement in the spring of 1954, NBC officially disbanded the orchestra, much to Toscanini's distress, though it continued for several years independent of NBC, as the Symphony of the Air. Toscanini's final broadcast concert with the orchestra took place at Carnegie Hall on April 4, 1954, and he conducted the orchestra for the last time during RCA Victor recording sessions held June 3 and 5, 1954.
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