X v Y: Philharmonic or Symphony?


Glosso is devoting September to looking at pairs of words that seem to mean the same thing, but often don’t. Today’s question: are symphony and philharmonic synonymous?

The next time you go and hear your local Philharmonic (if you have one), remember that its name means “loving music”. An adjective dating back to the mid-18th century, philharmonic comes from the French philharmonique (1739) and the Italian filarmonico, meaning literally “loving harmony”, from the Greek philos (“loving”) + ta harmonika (“theory of harmony, music”). It was first used by the Royal Philharmonic Society, a British music society formed in London in 1813 to promote performances of instrumental music, and was subsequently adopted by many symphony orchestras as part of their own names, the most famous of which are the New York Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic (all with “Orchestra” in their names). Cities around the world — from Albuquerque and Cape Town to Odessa and Tokyo — have the harmony-loving word in their eponymous orchestras’ names, as have states (Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan), and countries from Israel to Qatar.

“But what’s the difference between a symphony orchestra and a philharmonic orchestra?”, you might ask. Well, you can think of orchestras being a bit like drugs — and not just because of their mind-bending effects. A symphony orchestra is the generic term for a large, full-scale orchestra (as distinct from a small chamber or string orchestra) that has sufficient instrumental forces to play a symphony — i.e. using most of or all the instruments of the orchestra. In the same way that an antacid or an anti-depressant describes a type or subset of medications, so “symphony” denotes a type of orchestra: a large one. Many such orchestras include the word symphony in their proper names — e.g. the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Philharmonic, on the other hand, is an adjective (as described above) that’s used mainly in the context of a proper name of an orchestra — a bit like the brand name of a drug, and hence it’s nearly always capitalized. In the same way that Motrin names a particular brand of the generic ibuprofen, so the Rhode Island Philharmonic is a distinctive “brand” of symphony orchestra. All “Philharmonic” orchestras are symphony orchestras; however, only some symphony orchestras have Philharmonic in their names. Philharmonic — with its positive, music-loving connotations — is a handy moniker to be used in cities or countries boasting more than one symphony orchestra where distinctions are necessary. England’s capital city has the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (among others) — two separate ensembles of similar sizes with different personnel, homes, programs and reputations.

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Other topics to be covered in Talking Music include the difference between a concerto and a symphony; different names of voice types (alto or mezzo? soprano or treble?); when classical, romantic and baroque have capital initial letters; and the ever popular look at Brit-Yank differences — mainly to be found in timing and rhythm.

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H/T to Lily

First posted Oct 2014.

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