But Why a Symphony?

Michael Shapiro
3 min readJun 16, 2020


By Michael Shapiro

My Second Symphony is a work of absolute music. It has no subtext; it tells no “story”; it just is. I had always wished to write a four-movement symphony, containing a serious first movement, a scherzo, a lyrical slow movement, and a set of variations concluding in transcendence.’ Working in 2010 with Marin Alsop and the virtuosic Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music (for the California premiere of my Roller Coaster) provided inspiration to open my symphonic veins further, write a large work for large orchestra, and out came this purely instrumental symphony (my first, Symphony Pomes Penyeach, is a song cycle).

Michael Shapiro conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

But why a SYMPHONY?

It could have been a tone poem, an essay, an orchestral prelude, overture, suite, you name it. Perhaps because for me a symphony is like writing a string quartet — a personal statement, something I just had to write. Different from a chamber work, a symphony is grand and creates not a locale, but a long form, indeed a world. It must be; it is forced to state and often demand. Composers before me have waited to write a symphony until they had that large utterance ready to be said, the epic in sound. I felt the same compulsion and out of a large blank page it came.

Why is it so that composers in the middle of the great utterance can suddenly turn small, then build to a sound out of the chaos that reaches toward the heavens? The power of the symphony is unique in its mutability.

I know of no other form where we are challenged to go beyond ourselves. The symphony is our chance to present large sentiments while avoid being close. I like the remoteness while at the same time immediacy of the symphony. There is a decided compunction to skip being trivial. Here is one’s opportunity to draw everyone in communally. In the huge is found the most personal.

A symphony can incorporate singers and choral forces, but a purely orchestral symphony like my Second Symphony is surely something else. One must convince listeners without words to receive and be moved by the basic elements of music making portrayed in massed sound.

The Second Symphony is scored for full orchestra including the usual complement of winds, brass, percussion, and strings, but adding alto flute and English horn for their special pungency. Its premiere reading with The Chappaqua Orchestra in the United States was immediately followed by this recording in July, 2015 with Sir Simon Rattle’s old ensemble, the miraculous City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at CBSO Centre in Birmingham, UK. The recording sessions with these great musicians confirmed the sounds, textures, timbres, rhythms, and, yes, emotions I intended to impart when I wrote the work. It is preserved now for listeners to hear, and, I trust, be moved by a symphony in four movements for orchestra, plain and simple, colorful and complex, a work that is absolutely what it is.

To listen to my Second Symphony performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Michael Shapiro, conductor, please listen to the recording at: