The Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra traces its history back to the night of March 6, 1808, when six Harvard men first formed the Pierian Sodality, an organization dedicated to the consumption of brandy and cigars as well as the serenading of young ladies. Its midnight expeditions were not confined to Cambridge, but extended to Watertown, Brookline, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Boston, etc. wherever, in short, dwelt celebrated belles. The June 29, 1840 entry in the Sodality’s record book reads:
It came to pass in the reign of Simon the King, that the Pierians did meet in the tabernacle. And lo! A voice was heard saying, Let us go serenading and they lifted up their voice as one man and they said, Let us go. And behold we went to the city of the Philistines, and did serenade their daughters, and came home about the third hour. And the fame of the Pierians did wax exceedingly great, and did reach all the places round about Cambridge.
The early Pierians had so much spirit that in the 1830s, the Faculty of Harvard College publicly admonished the Sodality for absenting themselves from Cambridge for a whole night, serenading. Administration censure was so great, in fact, that in 1832, the Pierian Sodality was reduced to one man: Henry Gassett 34. According to Time magazine (March 29, 1943), he held meetings with himself in his chair, paid himself dues regularly, played his flute in solitude and finally persuaded another flautist to join in duets. Gradually they elected other members. The Sodality played on. The Sodality not only played on, but also profoundly influenced the development of music in Cambridge and Boston over the next fifty years. The Harvard Glee Club and the Boston Symphony, for instance, both owe their existence to the early Pierians.
By the turn of the century, the Pierian Sodality could at last justly refer to itself as the Harvard University Orchestra. It had grown into a more serious musical organization and had become the largest college orchestra in America. Soon it deemed itself ready for its first out-of-state tour, the Centennial Tour of 1908, which took the orchestra through New York state, and which was so successful that other tours quickly followed. The orchestra gradually built an international reputation and played for many distinguished audiences in this country. It was not until November of 1936 that members of the Pierian Sodality finally condescended to assist the Radcliffe Orchestra in some of its larger concerts. Joint concerts became more frequent in the late Thirties, and in 1942, the Pierian suggested that the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra be formed. Since the Sodality’s membership was depleted during the war years, and since Radcliffe Orchestra lacked certain instruments, both groups benefited from the merger.
It is said that around 1950, the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra stopped making history and started making music with a degree of seriousness never before seen at the University. The orchestra continued to improve in quality and reputation as it took tours to Mexico (1962), Washington, D.C. (1966) and Canada (1972). In 1978, the HRO placed third in the Fifth Annual International Festival of Student Orchestras. The 80s and 90s saw tours of the former Soviet Union (1984), Asia (1985 and 1988), Europe (1992), and Italy (1996). Since the turn of the century, HRO has toured Brazil (2000), Canada (2004), Cuba (2011), the Middle East (2013), South Korea and the Philippines (2008, 2015), and Argentina (2017).