Classical Act

Classical Music's Crescendo to Greatness at Harvard

Nearly every weekend Harvard kiosques parade poster advertisements for classical music events and concerts. The dynamic performance environment includes the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO), originally known as the Pierian Sodality of 1808, which holds sold-out performances in Sanders theatre. In addition to the HRO there is the Bach Society Orchestra (BachSoc) (founded 1954), the Mozart Society Orchestra (founded 1984), the Collegium Musicum, the Glee Club, the Radcliffe Chorus Society and scores of student organized chamber groups. Any sort of musical talent is bound to find a satisfying outlet at Harvard. Who are the students who make up these groups, and is Harvard sufficient for really serious musicians?

The musical environment at Harvard in the ’60s was much more academic and imbued with the gentlemanly tradition according to Robert Levin ’68, Head Tutor of the Music Department. Although HRO and BachSoc were already performing, there were few other performance opportunities. Musical performance was rarely encouraged by the department or anyone else. The Harvard Music department course offerings were traditionally academic, composed almost entirely of theory and the study of music. Levin describes the situation of the past as being influenced by the Ivy League attitude wherein music could be intelligently discussed over cocktails and cigars, but never played by those same connoisseurs. Because Harvard was not seen as a vocational school, as conservatories were, it did not foster performers, but only stodgy academics. Leonard Bernstein ’39 said that, “At Harvard music was seen and not heard.”

In the years since that time, Harvard has attracted more musicians, particularly talented amateurs. The atmosphere of performance has gradually changed because of students’ desire to pursue music even while pursuing something completely different academically. Today, the number of performance groups on campus is much larger and is continually expanding with growing enthusiasm. The influx of students who have studied music for many years and, despite deciding to pursue careers in a different field, cannot give up music has created a strong classical music environment. This in turn attracts even those who have not previously studied music or played an instrument. Levin said, “Harvard definitely holds its own musically when compared to the major [music] conservatories.” Not only does Harvard stand firm in comparison to conservatories, many extraordinary students choose Harvard over major conservatories like Juillard and Curtis every year.

What draws these students away from huge name professional music schools? For some it is their love of other subjects as well as music. The astounding quality and variety of liberal arts classes at Harvard can hardly be found at a music conservatory. Among the small number of music concentrators, there is a fair proportion of joint concentrators who attempt to take advantage of everything Harvard has to offer. Many conservatories are known not only for their rigorous programs but also for their stifling environments and cutthroat competition. When students are required to play in orchestras and chamber groups, the attitude can be far more resentful than the enthusiasm generated by Harvard’s “amateur” groups. As Levin said, “There is no connection between the number of [music] concentrators and the number of excellent performers.” Levin finds it refreshing that some of the most talented performers may be Neurobiology or Classics concentrators.

Students have also taken the initiative to form support organizations for musicians who don’t inherently fit into the orchestral unit. The Harvard Piano Society provides a meeting forum for amateur and serious pianists and organizes master classes and recitals. They often provide much-needed accompanists for many productions and pairs duets. Founder of the Harvard Piano Society Aaron Miller ’02 said, “We saw a need for greater performance opportunity for Harvard pianists, because the only thing available before were the concerto competitions.” Since founding the organization last year they have invited well-known teachers, including Robert Levin, to hold master classes. Such organizations are fully student led and run; it is this enterprising spirit that drives the existence and expansion of classical music on Harvard’s campus.


The music program is not without its deficiencies. The lesson subsidy provided by the college, for instance, is based solely on financial aid qualifications and can sometimes make it difficult for students to afford lessons regularly. Brooke Lieberman ’05, a soprano and Music concentrator, who received $100 last term, said that would pay for one lesson with her Boston Conservatory instructor. Like Lieberman, many students have to go outside of Harvard for music instruction because of limited availability or lack of specialized staff such as vocalists.

Whereas a conservatory is structured around the many hours of practice each day, Harvard is clearly not. The availability of practice space also causes problems especially when practice rooms are open for a mere three hours on Saturday. Freshman practice rooms are often intolerably cramped and airless, house rooms are often little better, and the department building can seem dauntingly far away for many. Thus students often are forced to practice in their rooms or create makeshift practice areas.

Although the wealth of musical talents creates an environment of activity and creativity, some students feel the university and the Music Department do not do enough to foster performance and musical endeavor. All of the performance activities are organized by students, and some feel they would appreciate greater university involvement. Ishan Bhabha ’04, a member of BachSoc, said “The university doesn’t provide enough of a forum for chamber music.”

The future of classical music looks entirely promising with the increasing influx of talented musicians every year. In the next few years many of the Music Department’s faculty plan to retire, leaving room for the possibility of major changes. “The department’s priorities will be reexamined” said Levin. This may mean hiring more performance faculty if the department decides to pursue that route. There are already faculty who study non-traditional musical subjects such as ethno-musicology. In any case, the success of the department and the Harvard musical culture will always depend on the undergraduate and graduate students, who have the desire and are already expert practitioners. The future of music, Levin said, should be thought of with “unguarded optimism.”