A philharmonic orchestra is a large group of musicians who perform instrumental music. This type of musical ensemble includes brass, string, woodwind, and percussion instruments and can have more than 100 musicians, though they are not all necessarily present at every performance. It is distinguished from a chamber orchestra, a smaller ensemble with 50 musicians or less. Philharmonic orchestras primarily play classical music, though today many can also be heard in other areas, such as film scores, popular music, and music for video games.
Originally, a philharmonic orchestra referred to an orchestra created by a philharmonic society. The societies, who took their name from classical Greek words meaning “lovers of harmony,” were made up of musicians and other lovers of music who organized orchestras to perform music for the general public. This distinguished a philharmonic orchestra from other orchestras of the time, which were primarily created and supported by the patronage of kings and other aristocrats. Over time, the term has become increasingly divorced from its origins and is now frequently used as a generic term for a full orchestra, used interchangeably with symphony orchestra. It is often used when a city has more than one major orchestra in order to differentiate them.
A modern philharmonic orchestra has a diverse array of instruments. An orchestra's string section contains bowed string instruments such as the violin, cello, and double bass, as well as the harp. The string section is by far the largest part of the orchestra. The woodwinds include flutes, bassoons, and clarinets. The brass section contains horns such as the trumpet, trombone, and tuba.
Percussion can be much more variable, according to the particular music being played, but can contain cymbals, different types of drums, and percussion instruments played with mallets such as the xylophone, vibraphone, and glockenspiel. In addition to the four main sections, an orchestra may also incorporate additional instruments, such as the piano and classical guitar. The different musicians and sections are coordinated by the orchestra's conductor, who stands in front of the musicians and uses gestures to indicate the proper beat and tempo, cue different musicians to begin playing, or indicate changes in volume.
The first philharmonic society began in London in 1813. The oldest, still in existence today, is the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, founded in 1840. In modern times, philharmonic orchestras are common throughout the world. Prestigious examples operating today include the Vienna Philharmonic in Austria, the Berlin Philharmonic in Germany, and the New York Philharmonic in the United States.