The Academy of Santa Cecilia (L'Accademia di Santa Cecilia) was, historically, the dominant secularly established musical organization in Rome and its orchestra was the first in Italy to by dedicated exclusively to the symphonic repertory. (That is, it was not an opera theater orchestra that also gave symphony concerts.)
Roman musicians and music lovers formed various organizations in the 1500s. Chief among them was the Congregazione dei Musici di Roma (Congregation of Musicians of Rome), which included virtually all the important musicians of the city, excluding only the Papal singers, who felt they had to keep their direct allegiance to the Pope unsullied by adherence to any other authority, such as the four musicians (a maestro de cappella, an organist, a singer, and an instrumentalist) elected each year to run the Congregazione. In 1586 Pope Sixtus V officially recognized the organization and put it under the protection of Saints Cecilia and Gregory, two patrons of music. Over the years it met in a succession of churches, "paying rent" by providing musical services for them.
The Congregation essentially controlled public and church music in Rome and trained musicians. In 1624, Pope Urban VIII also gave the group the monopoly on printed music in Rome. This privilege was rescinded in 1626, but re-established in 1684 by Innocent XI. Meanwhile, great musical changes occurred. Opera was invented, opening the Baroque era, and during the 1600s private musical academies (really, discussion and private performance organizations) became widespread in Rome. Santa Cecilia continued its important role in Roman musical life, which was enlarged in 1716 when Clement XI issued a brief conferring on it responsibility for all musical operations in Rome and naming Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni its protector. By now, the organization had long been providing instruction for boy singers and training them in instruments.
Napoleon's conquest of Rome let to an attempt to establish a formal conservatory in the city. His defeat caused the Santa Cecilia (and musical life in Rome in general) to revert to an exacerbated decline caused by directionless leadership. This was corrected in 1830 when Luigi Rossi was chosen secretary. He gave it a new lease on life and got Roman musical life in touch with developments elsewhere in Europe. In 1841, the Congregation was strong enough to turn its main pursuit to the establishment of a first-rate training institute, a Liceo Musicale (Musical Lyceum) and begin the process of forming a stable permanent orchestra. In 1853, the Congregation moved to the Palazzo a Ferro di Cavallo, site of the Academy of Fine Arts, rather than stay in residence in a church. In 1870, Rome became the capital of a reunited Italy, and the Congregation was renamed the Royal Academy of Santa Cecilia. In 1877, it moved to its present quarters near the Orsoline College in Via Vittoria where, in 1895, it finally opened a concert hall of its own, the Sala Accademica.
Since then it has given over 13,000 concerts with some of the major artists of the era, including Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Toscanini, Furtwängler, and Karajan. It has had an illustrious list of permanent conductors: Molinari, Ferrara, Previtali, Markevitch, Schippers, Sinopoli, Danielle Gatti, and its present conductor, Myung-Whun Chung. Its 90-voice chorus has been active since 1952; its chorus master is Filippo Maria Bressan. Both organizations tour frequently. In the last decade of the twentieth century alone the orchestra traveled throughout Europe and to Australia, South America, Japan, Russia, Britain, and Korea. It has recorded for RCA, BMG, Teldec, Philips, EMI, Deutsche Grammophon, and Decca, and won numerous recording prizes.