Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

For the Joy of It

September-October 2009

In 1871, the Pierian Sodality, 16 strong, posed with their instruments.

In 1871, the Pierian Sodality, 16 strong, posed with their instruments.

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives

The founding document of the Pierian Sodality, dated March 6, 1808. Founders included four officers and two members.

The founding document of the Pierian Sodality, dated March 6, 1808. Founders included four officers and two members.

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives

This photograph, from a scrapbook collecting items from 1929 to 1950, depicts the "Pierian Sodality Orchestra" at Boston's Symphony Hall.

This photograph, from a scrapbook collecting items from 1929 to 1950, depicts the "Pierian Sodality Orchestra" at Boston's Symphony Hall.

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives

Conductor James Yannatos on the cover of the <em>Harvard Alumni Bulletin</em> of January 1969.

Conductor James Yannatos on the cover of the Harvard Alumni Bulletin of January 1969.

Courtesy of Harvard Alumni Bulletin, photograph by Mark Silber

The touring orchestra in Paris after a 1984 concert opening the "Festival Estival."

The touring orchestra in Paris after a 1984 concert opening the "Festival Estival."

Harvard Magazine, photograph by Sara Bethell

Part of the HRO string section, 1991.

Part of the HRO string section, 1991.

Courtesy of HROA, photograph by Martha Stewart

James Yannatos in his fortieth year as HRO conductor in 2004.

James Yannatos in his fortieth year as HRO conductor in 2004.

Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard News Office

Last year, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO), formerly known as the Pierian Sodality of 1808, celebrated its bicentennial. It could claim to be the oldest orchestra in America: relative newcomers like the New York Philharmonic (1842), Boston Symphony Orchestra (1881), and Philadelphia Orchestra (1900) arrived decades later (see “Two Centuries of Sound,” May-June 2008, page 23). But in its early years, the Pierian Sodality, named for the mythical spring that gave Greek gods musical inspiration, was simply a loose collection of students who liked to play music together. One of their most pleasant pastimes was serenading young ladies. On the night of June 22, 1820, for example, they “...serenaded almost every pretty girl in Boston…and returned to Cambridge at day break on the 23rd.”

This detail appears in a graceful, profusely illustrated, and highly readable history of the HRO, For the Joy of It, recently published by the Pierian Foundation (copies are available from a foundation director, Christine Balko Slywotzky, at cbslywotzky@yahoo.com). Mixing history and anecdote, the 76-page volume narrates the evolution of that small cadre of musicians (whose number shrank in 1832 to only one, Henry Gassett of the class of 1834, a flutist—and soloist) into a full-scale orchestra that has played in Berlin and Moscow and toured Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, among other foreign travels. For the Joy of It traces the growth of the orchestra through its various phases and conductors, and provides a charming account of a long, adventurous voyage conducted on waves of sound.