Sir Thomas Beecham

The RPS and the RPO

People sometimes ask us why the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra shares a title with the Royal Philharmonic Society. There’s a rather good story behind it…

The founders of the Philharmonic Society set out to engage a wider public with the excitement and worth of classical music. They did this by establishing the first regular orchestral concert series in the UK, which prospered for many decades. Other orchestras sprang up, following its winning formula, and to this day those that flourished uphold both the culture and the repertory that the Society established.

In 1912, on the eve of its centenary, the Philharmonic Society gained its Royal Charter and, with this, its first name. Everything was then thrown into disarray by the outbreak of the First World War, though salvation for the Society came as a young conductor – Thomas Beecham – stepped forward and energetically led many of its concerts during the war years. Beecham brought great imagination to his programming and great style to his performances, which proved very popular. But the democratic committee of the Society were wary that he wanted to take charge of everything, so limited the opportunities they gave him once the war was over.

The ambitious Beecham proceeded to set up the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932 and, as financial means left the RPS struggling to keep its own orchestra afloat between the wars, the LPO eventually stepped in to fulfil the Society’s concerts up to and through the Second World War. By this stage, Beecham left the LPO to govern itself while he set off to make his name worldwide, firstly to Australia then to America where he conducted the Metropolitan Opera. On his return to the UK in the last years of the war, the LPO had become accustomed to running itself and the players were not so keen to relinquish authority to the conductor.

The ever-restless Beecham then decided to set up a new orchestra in 1946 which he wanted to give a head start among the competition by naming it the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, given the strong brand and reputation of the RPS. He succeeded in persuading the RPS to let his new orchestra undertake their concerts at a competitive rate, in return for the name. As he attracted an impressive array of top players to be part of it, the RPS agreed, and permitted him calling it the RPO.

Everyone set about this arrangement with the best intentions, though there was seemingly no ‘pre-nup’. Soon it became apparent the RPS had overlooked a particular issue: it was rewarding to be associated with the RPO when Beecham conducted it, but a sprinkling of second-tier concerts with lesser-qualified conductors and deputy players brought questions of quality to the name. For over a decade, both parties tussled with how to resolve this.

When Beecham died in 1961, some felt the orchestra should relinquish the title. Others felt that, having lost its artistic figurehead, it couldn’t withstand losing its brand too, so a series of year-on-year agreements were made to retain it, till the orchestra established a new artistic leader and direction. By 1964, the RPS found itself flooded with letters, telegrams, cables and appeals from musicians and music lovers worldwide entreating them to let the orchestra keep its name. Remarkably, even the Home Secretary at the time weighed in on the issue, in agreement. Duly, not wanting to see another musical institution diminished, the RPS consented.

Since then both organisations have flourished independently under their own names but remained united in their outlook, enjoying a healthy exchange of ideas, and sportingly forwarding post sent occasionally by mistake to the other.

In October 2020, the RPO was shortlisted for the RPS Impact Award, recognising initiatives that engage people who may not otherwise experience with classical music, for its pioneering Strokestra, collaborating with the NHS to empower stroke survivors and their carers through composing, performing and conducting their own music.