The earliest roots of the Gewandhausorchester can be traced as far back as 1479. In this year Leipzig City Council appointed three musicians - Kunstpfeifer ('artistic pipers') - as municipal employees. This small ensemble remained in civic service until 1840, by which time their number had increased to seven. The musicians played a central role in Leipzig's cultural life, performing at functions in the City Hall, providing the musical accompaniment for services in the city's churches and participating in theatre productions, as well as forming a part of the orchestra of the Große Concerte ('Grand Concerts').

The concert enterprise Großes Concert was founded in 1743 by a society comprising both nobility and regular citizens alike - the first venture of its kind in Leipzig. The original Große Musicalische Concerte were held in the more spacious of homes of Leipzig society. The concerts' popularity soon, however, necessitated the hire of a hall in the hostelry Zu den drei Schwanen. For over thirty years, this inn played host to those citizens of Leipzig who could afford the society's substantial annual membership fee, from which the musicians were renumerated. The original orchestra comprised sixteen musicians, half of whom were professionals (including the Kunstpfeifer), half students at the city's university.

At this time, the Gewandhaus (Gewand = robe), the trading house of the city's textile merchants, had no use for a substantial part of the upper floor of the building. On the initiative of the mayor, this space was converted into a concert hall. In November 1781, the first Gewandhauskonzert took place. The audience consisted of the members of the society which had promoted the concerts in the inn; the 32-man orchestra comprised the musicians who had given the Große Concerte, the majority of whom were, by this time, also employed regularly by the theatre. The orchestra of these Gewandhaus Concerts, therefore, soon became known as the 'Gewandhaus and Theatre Orchestra'.