c. 1300, a name given to various types of musical instruments, from Old French simphonie, sifonie, simfone "musical harmony; stringed instrument" (12c., Modern French symphonie) and directly from Latin symphonia "a unison of sounds, harmony," from Greek symphonia "harmony, concord of sounds," from symphonos "harmonious, agreeing in sound," from assimilated form of syn- "together" (see syn-) + phone "voice, sound," from PIE root *bha- (2) "to speak, tell, say."
Meaning "harmony of sounds" in English is attested from late 14c.; sense of "music in parts" is from 1590s. "It was only after the advent of Haydn that this word began to mean a sonata for full orchestra. Before that time it meant a prelude, postlude, or interlude, or any short instrumental work." ["Elson's Music Dictionary"] Meaning "elaborate orchestral composition" first attested 1789. Elliptical for "symphony orchestra" from 1926. Diminutive symphonette is recorded from 1947.
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