What’s the difference between a symphony and a philharmonic orchestra?

The difference between a symphony and a philharmonic lies in the choice of words used to name an orchestra. However, delving into the origins of these words reveals a more intricate story. Let’s break it down… Selecting a fitting and impactful name for an orchestra holds significant importance, akin to a branding endeavor.

Typically, the most robust choice is to name the orchestra after the city or town it is based in—consider the London Symphony Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Another approach is to name the orchestra after its founder, like the Hallé, established in 1858 by Sir Charles Hallé.

Alternatively, the orchestra can be named based on its purpose, such as radio orchestras or those specifically created for recording film soundtracks. Some orchestras are named to reflect the repertoire they perform, like the Boston Pops, known for popular and light music, or The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, borrowing its name from the 18th-century period of significant social change and intellectual exchange that inspired its specialized music.

These names are often accompanied by additional words: symphony in many cases, and philharmonic in others. So, what exactly sets apart the terms ‘symphony’ and ‘philharmonic’, and what do these words signify?

What is an orchestra?

An orchestra is a gathering of 80 to 100 musicians who play various instruments from families like strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, and sometimes keyboards.

Interestingly, the term ‘orchestra’ has Greek origins. It harks back to the circular area in a theater where dancers and musicians would present their acts, a design and function reminiscent of today’s symphony orchestras.

The concept of what we now know as an orchestra can be traced back to the 1600s, particularly to the year 1607 when Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi formed a specific group of musicians to debut his opera, Orfeo.

Similar musical groups were emerging around the same time, prompting composers to create music tailored for these ensembles, drawn to the marvelous sounds they produced. These ensembles expanded in size, evolving into the massive forces seen in 19th-century symphonies by notable composers like Beethoven and Mahler.

These groups were named based on the kind of music they were created to perform, known as symphonies. Hence, they are most commonly referred to as symphony orchestras.

The credit for composing the initial concert symphonies is widely attributed to Italian composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini, active in the early 1700s.

 The difference between a symphony and a philharmonic orchestra lies in the choice of words for naming the orchestra.

‘Symphony’ comes from the Greek word symphōnía, meaning ‘agreement of sound’. On the other hand, ‘philharmonic’ is also from Greek, where ‘Phil’ (like ‘philos’) means ‘love’ and ‘harmonic’ (like ‘harmonious’) means ‘harmony’.

The term ‘symphony’ was fitting for groups performing symphonies and is a general term for this type of ensemble. Consequently, it became a common name for orchestras. For specific groups, an official name like the ‘Something’ Symphony Orchestra was logical.

‘Philharmonic’ entered the English language in the 19th century, initially used for societies supporting music and serving wealthy ‘lovers of harmony’. Members paid a fee for concerts performed by an orchestra associated with the organization. An example is the Royal Philharmonic Society, which had the influence to commission notable works like Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ Symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The term ‘Philharmonic’ for orchestra names became popular as more ensembles adopted this funding model. Many cities like London, Vienna, and Berlin have both a symphony orchestra and a philharmonic orchestra.

The history of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Classic FM’s Orchestra in North West England, beautifully illustrates this ‘love of harmony’.

It was founded by a group of amateur musicians, led by stockbroker and organist William Sudlow, purely out of their love for music.

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Their passion led to the formation of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society on 10 January 1840. Their goal was to promote ‘the Science and Practice of Music’.

The Liverpool Philharmonic Society was the second philharmonic society of this kind to be established, with the first being the Royal Philharmonic Society mentioned earlier.

What’s the size difference between a symphony and a philharmonic orchestra?

In terms of size and appearance on stage, a symphony orchestra and a philharmonic orchestra are exactly the same. They feature the same instrument sections and number of players.

What are the other main types of orchestras?

While symphony and philharmonic orchestras are of the same size, the third most common type of orchestra is differentiated by its size.

A chamber orchestra is typically smaller and meant for performances in smaller spaces rather than large concert halls. It is tailored accordingly in terms of size. A chamber orchestra can have as few as 17 core members, like the Australian Chamber Orchestra, or around 30 players or more, such as Classic FM’s Orchestra in North-East England and at Sage Gateshead, Royal Northern Sinfonia.

The term ‘Sinfonia,’ similar to ‘symphony,’ is also used to name orchestras, particularly denoting smaller symphony orchestras, making it a suitable fit for chamber groups.

Which is preferable, ‘symphony’ or ‘philharmonic’?

Both words wonderfully convey the collective love for music and hold equal value.

Today, there isn’t a substantial difference between symphony and philharmonic orchestras. The choice of name for a particular ensemble might consider the meaning of the words. An ensemble might opt for ‘Symphony‘ to emphasize the sounds and the coming together to celebrate music-making.

On the other hand, ‘philharmonic’ might evoke the harmoniousness of the music and those involved in running the organization.

Another consideration is whether a particular word is already in use, as the decision may be influenced by the availability of the name within the city’s orchestral landscape.

Oh, the joy of having a multitude of orchestras to experience.

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