In the late 1970s and early 1980s, groups that played period instruments started to appear. They were strongly associated with particular conductors, usually the musician who formed each ensemble, and generally were not full-time organizations. Typically, they gathered for a limited number of concerts and recordings a year, and their membership was variable. Half the people playing on one day's studio session as the London Classical Players might have been on stage the week before as part of the Academy of Ancient Music.
In 1986, a group of the best of these freelance players sought increased security and the artistic benefits of performing regularly as a permanent orchestra, and formed the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. As most London orchestras, they organized themselves into a self-governing co-operative owned by the musicians. As a matter of policy, they decided against appointing anyone as its music director or permanent conductor. This meant they had to shine from the outset to attract the best interpreters to lead their performances.
That they did. They immediately made a mark in the central Baroque- and Classical-era repertory of composers like Purcell, Vivaldi, the Bachs, the Haydn brothers, and the Mozarts, under such leaders in the period instrument field as Frans Brüggen, Ton Koopman, Gustav Leonhardt, Sigiswald Kuijken, and Charles Mackerras. An early success was when they served as the orchestra for a production of Mozart's Idomeneo with Simon Rattle in 1987.
In 1989, they were invited to perform in a major series of Haydn concerts, making their debut at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, with which it has often performed since. In 1991, the anniversary year of Mozart's death, the OAE performed at the Salzburg Festival and in the "Mozart Now" series at London's South Bank Centre.
Without a permanent conductor, the OAE held itself out as available to perform with conductors who are not part of the Baroque and Classical specialist crowd, such as Paavo Järvi, Sir Simon Rattle, Ivan Fischer, Andrew Davis, Heinrich Schiff, and Mark Elder. Most of the OAE's members can be considered scholar-specialists on the history of their own instrument and have mastered all the successive technical variants that occurred over the years. Thus, the OAE often performs music of such composers of Rossini, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner, and even Tchaikovsky and Mahler on instruments appropriate to these masters' own periods.
In 1992, Brüggen and Rattle agreed to be named the OAE's principal guest conductors, and have performed often with it since. Its regular venues are London's Royal Festival Hall (where it is an Associate Ensemble) and St. George's Bristol, where it is the Resident Ensemble. In 2002, its long association with Glyndebourne was formalized as it was officially named that venue's Associate Orchestra. The orchestra has toured widely, including 17 countries in Europe alone, as well as major venues in most other parts of the world and has recorded over 50 CD releases.