In 1900, Ferdinand Löwe founded the orchestra as the Wiener Concertverein (Vienna Concert Society). In 1913 it moved into the Konzerthaus, Vienna. In 1919 it merged with the Tonkünstler Orchestra. In 1933 it acquired its current name. Despite a lull in concert attendance after the introduction of radio during the 1920s, the orchestra survived until the invasion of Austria in 1938 and became incorporated into the German Culture Orchestras. As such, they were used for purposes of propaganda until, depleted by assignments to work in munitions factories, the orchestra closed down on September 1, 1944.
Their first post-war concert occurred on September 16, 1945, performing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 3. Under the direction of Josef Krips, they quickly rebuilt a modern repertoire after ten years of isolation, and travelled to the Bregenz Festival for the first time in the summer of 1946.
That year marked the beginning of the tenure of Herbert von Karajan who, though not principal conductor, worked with the VSO in the "Karajan Series" concerts, going on extensive tours throughout Europe and North America. In 1959 the VSO performed for Pope John XXIII at Vatican City, leading up to the debut of Wolfgang Sawallisch.
Sawallisch's leadership saw a tour of the United States in 1964 as well as a combined U.S.-Japan tour in 1967. It also included the re-opening of the Theater an der Wien in 1962. Krips returned as artistic advisor in the interim between Sawallisch's departure and the arrival of Carlo Maria Giulini as principal conductor. In 1986, Georges Prêtre became principal guest conductor, and served until the arrival of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos as principal conductor in 1991. Vladimir Fedoseyev became chief conductor in 1997 and served in the post until 2005. Currently, Prêtre and Sawallisch each hold the title of Ehrendirigent (honorary conductor) with the VSO.
Since 2005, Fabio Luisi has held the post of chief conductor. He is contracted to the VSO through 2013, and is scheduled to step down from the VSO chief conductorship after the 2012-2013 season. In October 2011, Philippe Jordan was named the VSO's next chief conductor, effective with the 2014-2015 season, with an initial contract of 5 years