The first concert of what was to become the Houston Symphony took place on June 21, 1913, sponsored by the Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg. Initially, the orchestra was composed of only 35 part-time musicians. Despite its small stature and budget, the orchestra and its first conductor, Julien Paul Blitz, enjoyed a good response and continued to perform. Blitz conducted until 1916, then Paul Bergé, until the orchestra disbanded in 1918.
The orchestra reformed in 1930, still as a semi-professional orchestra, and gave its first full season of concerts the following year conducted by Uriel Nespoli. In the spring of 1936 the symphony society officially became the Houston Symphony Society. Ernst Hoffmann began his tenure that year with increased support from the Society and began hiring professional musicians. The orchestra continued to expand over the next several decades, and its first 52-week contract was signed in 1971.
When conductor Leopold Stokowski invited noted African-American opera singer Shirley Verrett to sing with the Houston Symphony in the early 1960s, he had to rescind his invitation when the orchestra board refused to accept a black soloist. Stokowski later made amends by giving her a prestigious date with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The orchestra performed in either the City Auditorium or the Music Hall until the construction in 1966 of the Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts. In 2001, the orchestra lost millions of dollars' worth of instruments, music, and archives when Tropical Storm Allison flooded the basement levels of Jones Hall. In 2003, the musicians went on strike for 24 days, and the settlement included a pay cut for the musicians and a reduction in the size of the orchestra.
Hans Graf was the music director of the orchestra from 2001-2013, the longest tenure of any Houston Symphony music director. In September 2009, the orchestra announced the conclusion of his tenure as music director at the end of the 2012-2013 season, upon which Graf took the title of conductor laureate of the orchestra.
In 2012, the Houston Symphony performed Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905) by Dimitri Shostakovich under the direction of Hans Graf at concerts in Jones Hall, Houston, Carnegie Hall, New York, and at the Festival of The World's Symphony Orchestras at Column Hall, Moscow.  The Houston Symphony was the first American orchestra invited to perform at the Festival of The World's Symphony Orchestras. Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony has long been associated with the Houston Symphony, since it was given its American premiere by them in 1958, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. The Houston Symphony released the first ever commercial recording of this work, also in 1958, on Capitol Records. 
In October 2012, Andrés Orozco-Estrada made his first guest-conducting appearance with the orchestra. This appearance led to a return engagement with the orchestra, for a private rehearsal. In January 2013, the orchestra announced the appointment of Orozco-Estrada as its next music director, as of the 2014-2015 season, with an initial contract of five years and twelve weeks of appearances per season. He holds the title of music director designate for the 2013-2014 season.
Notable musicians, past and present
- Arlene Weiss Alda, clarinet, assistant principal 1956–1957 
- James Austin, trumpet, principal 1960-1977
- Edward Carroll, trumpet, associate principal 1975–1976
- Wayne Crouse, viola, principal 1951–1983
- Paul Ellison, bass, principal 1964–1987
- Armando Ghitalla, trumpet 1948–1950
- Desmond Hoebig, cello, principal 1991–2003
- Frank Huang, violin, concertmaster 2010–2015
- Benjamin Kamins, bassoon, principal 1981-2003
- Caesar LaMonaca Jr. French horn 1950-1975
- Hal Robinson, bass, assistant principal 1977–1985
- Elaine Shaffer, flute, principal 1948–1953
- Joseph Silverstein, violin 1950–1953
- Laila Storch, oboe, principal 1948–19??
- William VerMeulen, horn, principal 1990–present
- John McLaughlin Williams, violin
- Harold Wright, clarinet, c. 1949–1952
- Tommasini, Anthony "Shirley Verrett Finally Tells Us Where She's Been", The New York Times, 2003-07-27. Retrieved on 2008-03-19.
- International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, Settlement Bulletin, "Houston Symphony Ratifies 4-Year Agreement". 17 April 2003.
- Daniel J. Wakin (5 February 2006). "Carnegie Hall 4 Vry Lo Rnt". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-10.
- Tara Dooley (23 September 2009). "Hans Graf takes steps to leave symphony". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 2009-10-02.
- Kozinn, Allan. "A Shostakovich Satire and a Colorful Program Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 February 2014.
- Studdard, Clair. "HOUSTON SYMPHONY TOURS TO RUSSIA ON THE HEELS OF FINANCIALLY AND ARTISTICALLY SUCCESSFUL 2011-2012 SEASON". DowntownHouston.org. Retrieved 25 February 2014.
- "Live Stream: the Houston Symphony in Moscow". Classical 91.7 fm KUHA. Retrieved 18 February 2014.
- Benson, Robert. "Notes and Editorial Reviews". Arkiv Music: The Source for Classical Music. Retrieved 18 February 2014.
- Robinson, Paul. "Hans Graf/HSO: Two Faces of Shostakovich in Houston". theartoftheconductor.com: classical music news and views. Retrieved 18 February 2014.
- Steven Brown (2013-01-16). "Colombia native will be Houston Symphony’s next leader". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 2013-01-27.
- Arlene Alda (1933-) Biography. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
- Houston Symphony official website
- Extensive history from The Handbook of Texas Online
- Oral History clip of Ima Hogg discussing the formation of the Houston Symphony from the Houston Area Digital Archive