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Philharmonic or symphony orchestra?

Do you know the difference between a philharmonic and a symphony orchestra? It’s high time we got to the bottom of this common question and presented the truth about these philharmonics.

A symphony orchestra and a philharmonic orchestra: what is actually the difference?

It’s a commonly asked question, and you might occasionally hear speculations about how it has to do with compositional or numeric differences. The short answer is: there is no difference at all. They are different names for the same thing, that is, a full-sized orchestra of around 100 musicians, intended primarily for a symphonic repertoire.

However, if you consider the origins of the words, you may be able to find some differences. A symphony orchestra is the descriptive name of an orchestra that plays symphonies; that much is clear. The word “symphony” is from the Greek “symphonia”, meaning concord of sound. The term “symphony orchestra” came into use in the late nineteenth century, when orchestras reached the large format that we’re familiar with today, but orchestral culture as such is obviously much older than that.

The word philharmonic, composed of the Greek words “philos” and “harmonikos”, essentially means a friend or love of harmony: “harmony” in the musical sense, that is, rather than in the sense of the harmony one might feel in a hammock hanging from a beautiful oak in the forest on a summer’s day.

“Philharmonic” came to be used by many music societies, and it was primarily during the nineteenth century that many Philharmonic Societies were created around the world. Music societies were hubs for music lovers, “philharmonics”. Arranging concerts was an essential activity of the societies. If an orchestra was formed under the flag of a society, it was only natural to give the orchestra the society’s name.

One of the world’s oldest orchestral institutions with such roots is the Norwegian Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. It dates back to 1765, when Musikselskabet Harmonien (“Harmony Musical Society”) was born. The orchestra’s original name, accordingly, was Musikselskabet Harmoniens Orkester, the “Harmony Musical Society Orchestra”. The Philharmonic Society, the oldest in the UK, was founded in London in 1813. The oldest American orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, was originally the Philharmonic Society of New York (1842).

Over time, “philharmonic” came to describe an orchestra of this sort, and was not necessarily associated with a philharmonic society. One example is indeed the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, which was certainly born from a society, but not with the word “philharmonic” in its name: the Stockholm Concert Society.

The Stockholm Concert Society was formed in 1902 by Tor Aulin, Wilhelm Stenhammar and John May to “give concerts, dedicated to raising interest in orchestral music and, in conjunction with that, to maintaining an established orchestra in Stockholm.” The association was thus the starting point of the Stockholm Concert Society, whose name was changed in 1957 to the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and then in 1992 to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra – which is referred to as the “Kungliga Filharmonikerna” (Royal Philharmonic) for short.

Another more mundane and practical feature of “symphonic” and “philharmonic” is that these names differentiate orchestras in the same city from one another, such as the Vienna Philharmonic and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, or the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra.

However, apart from the more delicate matters of playing technique and artistic differences between various orchestras, the terms “philharmonic orchestra” and “symphonic orchestra” are indeed used to describe orchestras of precisely the same type.