The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra is a seasonal orchestra mostly comprised of leading musicians from German orchestras. The Bayreuth Festival and its orchestra exist because Richard Wagner dreamed of a venue and special festival in which his stage works, particularly his cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, could be performed properly. Though the orchestra is made new each year, many musicians return every year to perform.
After years of searching for a proper location, Bayreuth was brought to Wagner's attention by Hans Richter. Though the existing structure of the Margravial Opera House wasn't appropriate for staging his works, Wagner enjoyed the city, and construction on a new hall, the Bayreuth Festival Theater, began in 1872. Wagner conducted a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in the Margravial Opera House to mark the occasion of the foundation stone being placed for the new theater. The festival's inaugural season began in August of 1876 and was attended by Kaiser Wilhelm, as well as many of Wagner's peers, including Bruckner, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky. Hans Richter conducted the premiere of the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen during the first festival. Wagner chose Hermann Levi to premiere Parsifal, Wagner's final completed opera, at the festival in 1882. Levi served as principle conductor of the festival for nearly 20 years. Following Wagner's death in 1883, his widow, Cosima, continued to hold the festival in one- or two-year intervals. She was vehement that Wagner's works should continue to be performed as originally written. Cosima retired from the festival in 1907 and their son, Siegfried, became artistic director. Following Siegfried's death in 1930, the festival was run by his widow, Winifred, with Heinz Tietjen as artistic director until 1944. Karl Elmendorff was the principal conductor from 1933 until 1942.
Much of the city of Bayreuth was destroyed during World War II, but, remarkably, the theater was left intact. Following the war, Winifred was banned from the city and its festival. Eventually, the festival was taken over by her sons, Wolfgang and Wieland. Under their leadership, the Bayreuth Festival returned in 1951. In what has become tradition, the festival opened with a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting, harkening back to Wagner's own performance in 1872. The 1976 centenary performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen (known as Jahrhundertring), directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez, is heralded as one of the cycle's finest productions. This staging would later be recorded and released in 1980. Following Wieland's death in 1966, Wolfgang continued to direct the festival until 2008. From 2008-2015, Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner were the festivals directors. In 2015, Katharina became the sole director of the festival. A great number of notable conductors have worked with the BFO, including Karl Böhm, Daniel Barenboim, James Levine, and Christian Thielemann. The Bayreuth Festival remains dedicated to staging Wagner Operas.
Recordings of the BFO have been numerous, especially since its return. They have been featured on many labels including Deutsche Grammophon, Golden Melodram, and Orfeo. Historical recordings have also been made available, including several performances conducted by Elmendorff. Among these, are a 1928 performance of Tristan und Isolde on the Naxos label. In 2018, the BFO released several live recordings on the Opus Arte label: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (2008), Lohengrin (2011), Tristan und Isolde (2009), Der fliegende Holländer (2013), and Tannhaüser (2014).