Thursday, March 15, 2018

What is the Difference Between a Philharmonic and a Symphony Orchestra?

It’s been a while, but this post returns to one of the original purposes of this blog: correcting people who are wrong on the Internet. As I’ve elaborated elsewhere, I aim my pedantry at publications that should know better, whether they neglected to consult a music scholar or need more attentive fact-checkers. In this case, it’s the blog for WQXR, New York City’s classical music radio station.

The WQXR Blog aims to inform and educate classical music lovers, so one could reasonably expect it to be accurate about the subject to which it is devoted. Unfortunately, their post “What Is The Difference Between a Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestra?” by James Bennett, II contains factual errors and skirts around the answer to the question. Many readers express frustration in the comments, taking issue with the writing style as well. In any case, this post fails to meet the needs of its audience, presumably curious people who would expect a classical radio station’s blog to have knowledge about classical music beyond a cursory Google search.

I’ll start with the outright mistakes. First, Bennett writes, “Orchestra comes to us from Latin by way of Greek…” [emphasis added]. Generally, etymology goes from Greek to Latin, and “orchestra” is no exception. This mistake is probably the result of careless wording and a lack of proofreading; nevertheless, it’s a factual error.

More egregious is Bennett’s definition of a chamber orchestra:
“A chamber orchestra is pretty small, and most often performs — wait for it — chamber music. The size of a chamber orchestra or ensemble is small enough for the most intimate performances, like weddings, funerals or swanky royal soirées that we probably aren’t invited to.”
This explanation is outright wrong. What Bennett describes here is a chamber ensemble, which is not the same as a chamber orchestra. Chamber ensembles are typically small, like a string quartet or a brass quintet. They do play chamber music, and their size corresponds to the instrumentation of the repertoire they perform.

Chamber orchestras, however, do not play chamber music. They are small orchestras that play repertoire that suits their size, such as symphonies by Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. These composers weren’t consciously thinking of writing for a small orchestra as they composed; they wrote for orchestra, and the size reflects what orchestras were at that time: strings with the addition of a few woodwinds, brass, and drums for color.

The Jersey Chamber Orchestra
A chamber orchestra might even have a conductor and everything!
Throughout the nineteenth century (and beyond), composers experimented with expanding the orchestra, in both the number and variety of instruments. Due to the popularity of music by composers such as Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner (honestly, more Wagner than Berlioz), as well as the construction of concert halls that accommodated these greater forces, these fuller ensembles became the expectation for “symphonic orchestras.” You’re not likely to find a chamber orchestra presenting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique because that’s not the type of piece they’re set up to play.

This isn’t to say that chamber orchestras are limited to music written before 1830. Although bigger orchestras were available, composers continued to write for chamber orchestras for a variety of reasons—artistic preference, venue logistics, financial constraints, etc. I wrote program notes for the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, and I can assure you that they performed works written between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries, inclusive.

The difference between a chamber ensemble and chamber orchestra is—or at least should be—basic knowledge for anyone presenting themselves as an expert in classical music. But back to the stated purpose of WQXR’s post:

What is the difference between a symphony and a philharmonic orchestra?

Bennett points out (correctly) that English use of the word “Philharmonic” began in 1813, but ultimately, “It’s all about branding and minimizing confusion.” In the comments, however, two commenters offer slightly differing alternative definitions:
Itsme1946 from Orcutt, USA: “I was taught that a Philharmonic was self governing via board formed of members of the Orchestra. Where a Symphony Orchestra is governed by others. Simple as that. Just compare London Philharmonic with the London Symphony.”
Unfortunately, these examples don’t line up with the stated definition. Both ensembles are currently self-governing; the LSO has been since its founding, and the LPO had benefactors on its board until World War II.
Adrian Pallares from Mexico: “Philharmonic orchestras are societies, formed by a private foundation or organization of musicians, where they organize themselves for choosing directors, performances, etc. Symphonic Orchestra it's an institution, formed or summoned by the state and financed primary by it. Simple as that.”
So, is it as “simple as that”? Which definition is correct?

All three are somewhat right, and the fact that people who read the post had lingering confusion means that Bennett’s explanation failed. He claims to offer nuance before giving a straightforward, incomplete answer. Here’s where the nuance really comes in:

Bennett is correct in that there is no real distinction between orchestras who call themselves “symphony” or “philharmonic”—anymore. And there has never really been any regulatory body ensuring that ensembles use the proper terms so that all philharmonics are self-governed and all symphony orchestras are governed by a board of outsiders, whether patrons, corporate sponsors, or the local government.

But the word “philharmonic” has the connotation of being a more cooperative endeavor, and that has everything to do with what was going on in the when the word came into use and when professional orchestras started spreading in the United States. (As always, Europe has a different-yet-related thing going on, but I’m going to contain my explanation to the US.)

Going back to 1813, “philharmonic” was first used in English for the Philharmonic Society of London (now known as the Royal Philharmonic Society), a collection of thirty musicians with a stated mission “to promote the performance, in the most perfect manner possible of the best and most approved instrumental music.” By choosing a word that literally means “lover(s) of harmony,” they were implying that members were motivated by the higher calling of art, not profit (though, okay, profit would be nice, too).

In the early nineteenth century, music took on a spiritual significance, a change from the more “scientific” approach of the Enlightenment. This is the era when Beethoven and other composers started being treated as gods among men. As William Weber explains in his book, The Great Transformation of Musical Taste (which I’ve cited before), this is the moment when musical “taste” became less about personal preference and more about moral and social standing. Having good taste meant appreciating and understanding fine art, devoting oneself to the eternal classics and avoiding the unsavory “popular” music. That attitude persists today in some circles.

For some, the moral aspect that was imposed on music led to a fervent desire to educate and enlighten others—to spread the Gospel of Good Music (especially the music of Wagner). Thus, societies like the Philharmonic Society of London emerged to evangelize, making art music available to a wider audience for their moral uplift. This cause is part of the reason why so many of the great American orchestras (in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and so on) came into being in the late nineteenth century.

Looking beyond just music to what was going on in American society, specifically the post-Civil War economy, one can see another major factor in the establishment of these orchestras: The Gilded Age. The American economy was booming, and capitalism was making certain individuals very, very rich. The richest people spent their money on philanthropy, due to some combination of an earnest desire to improve their communities and the positive image that conveys. Civic orchestras were a way to invest in the well-being of the city, to bring culture to the masses and prove its worth to the world.

Andrew Carnegie, April 1905
Carnegie Hall, for example.
This isn’t to say that every orchestra in the US was funded and/or governed by wealthy philanthropists, but that it became an option that hadn’t been viable up to that point. In Mark Clague’s chapter in American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century, he provides a nifty chart that lays out the ways musical groups could be organized in Chicago (and other American cities) in the nineteenth century:

Chart by Mark Clague in "Building the American Symphony Orchestra:
The Nineteenth-Century Roots of a 
Twenty-First-Century Musical Institution," p.27
(Clague points out that other models have developed since the nineteenth century, so your favorite ensemble might not correspond to anything on this chart.)

Though “philharmonic” and “symphony orchestra” are not categories on this chart, you can see how the distinction between leadership by members of the orchestra and by a board of non-members is just one of many aspects of how an ensemble can be managed. The word “philharmonic” could imply a co-op or society style of organization, as it did for two of the first three ensembles that called themselves the Chicago Philharmonic. (The first Chicago Philharmonic followed the entrepreneurial model!) The Chicago Symphony (now the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) was one of the first orchestras based on the corporate model, and it was so successful that the Chicago Philharmonic couldn’t compete.

In summary, calling an ensemble a philharmonic or a symphony or an orchestra (or some combination thereof) no longer makes much of difference beyond brand differentiation, yet examining the reasons why the word “philharmonic” flourished when it did reveals insight on society during that time. Despite the often condescending tone of WQXR’s blog post, I suspect its readers would have appreciated this more nuanced explanation.

Thanks to Doug Shadle, Brooks Kuykendall, and Bob Fink for their input on this post! Brooks has a musicology blog, Settling Scores, which also has a fresh post up today. I encourage you to check it out!

Like what you’ve read?

“What Is The Difference Between a Symphony and Philharmonic Orchestra?” by James Bennett, II for the WQXR Blog

The Great Transformation of Musical Taste by William Weber (2008)

Music of the Gilded Age by John Ogasapian and N. Lee Orr (2007)

“Building the American Symphony Orchestra: The Nineteenth-Century Roots of a Twenty-First-Century Musical Institution” by Mark Clague, in American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century (2012)


  1. Awful radio station, run by awful people with awful "content."

    1. I'm originally from the Chicago area, so I got spoiled by WFMT.

  2. A good guideline for figuring out what chamber music is: It's played one to a part. When you start doubling, you start moving out of chamber-music territory. Of course, there will be exceptions and complications ...

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.