3 min read
Posted on 03.17.14
  • 3 min read
  • Posted on 03.17.14

 The New York Philharmonic claims to be the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States. Granting that, which American orchestra is the second oldest?

Interestingly, two different local institutions lay claim to that title.

The Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra has a proud orchestral history. It has, it says, offered "an average of five concerts a year since January 27, 1867."

The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1880 as the St. Louis Choral Society. During the 1881-12 season, the chorus was joined by an orchestra of 31 musicians.

Both Belleville and Saint Louis name New York as the oldest symphony orchestra, setting its inception and institutional standing as a categorical point of reference and comparison.

In describing its status as the "oldest symphony orchestra in the United States," the New York Philharmonic doesn't rely simply on counting chairs and programs, and having maintained a minimum number of each, to assert continuous symphonic standing. It casts its institutional character and place in terms of being the first and oldest institution to have "played a leading role in American musical life" since its first concert in 1842, and "since its inception ... having championed the new music of its time."

So if, as all acknowledge, the New York Philharmonic is indisputably the oldest, continuously operated such institution, which, as between the SLSO and Belleville Philharmonic, makes the stronger case of being the second oldest such institution?

We'd argue that honor goes to Saint Louis.

The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra has been a force in music throughout the 20th and current centuries. It has toured Europe and Asia. It has played Carnegie Hall regularly - and recently. It premiered the works of major composers. It has recorded on a half dozen labels, including its own. It has been nominated fifty-six times for Grammy Awards.

By the categorical standard set by the New York Philharmonic, Saint Louis is reasonably and accurately described at the second oldest symphony orchestra in the United States.

Baseball provides a good analogy.

The Rochester Redwings of the International League has a continuous franchise history, which dates back to 1899. The Minnesota Twins, its parent club since 2003, are the original Washington Senators, and has a franchise history, which dates back to the founding of the American League in 1901.

Rochester has a great and storied baseball history. The Redwings continuously has fielded a baseball team for longer than the Twins and many other major league teams. The Rochester Redwings (now Broncos) has a legitimate claim on being the oldest continuously operated minor league baseball franchise (the Indianapolis Indians, dating to 1902, being the second oldest).

But the Redwings would not reasonably be considered in a discussion of comparative longevity with the Twins or any other major league franchise.


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