Conductor  Robert  Shaw

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Born in 1916, Robert Shaw conducted his college glee club in the 1930s and caught the attention of radio entertainer Fred Waring, who asked him to form the Fred Waring Glee Club. Looking to perform more classical music, Shaw established the Collegiate Chorale in 1941, which Arturo Toscanini selected for a series of performances of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. The Robert Shaw Chorale, which he launched in 1949, was Shaw's best-known ensemble, and for decades was one of the country's top choral groups. Among the students of Robert Shaw was Margaret Hillis, who went on to found the Chicago Symphony Chorus.  [See my Interview with Margaret Hillis.] 

Shaw joined the Atlanta Symphony in 1967 and raised it from a provincial ensemble to a major U.S. orchestra. He became music director emeritus and conductor laureate when he retired in 1988.  More details of his career can be found in the box at the bottom of this webpage.

In August of 1985, I had the privilege of being allowed to speak with Robert Shaw by telephone.  The original date of our meeting had to be pushed back twenty-four hours, but when we did connect, he said he would be happy to respond to anything I asked.  Our conversation lasted just over an hour, and, as usual, ranged through his memory of achievements and ideas about his art.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let us start with what you’re doing right now, working with the Atlanta Symphony.  You’ve done some orchestral works and also some choral works there.  Do you prepare the chorus yourself, or do you leave that to someone else?

Robert Shaw:    I take all of the rehearsals when I’m in town.  This coming season, because of a projected trip to Paris with the chorus and orchestra, we have to prepare an awful lot of materials.  So I’ve cancelled or withdrawn from most of my outside guest conducting engagements, which means that I’ll be taking substantially 100% of the rehearsals with the chorus, as well as all the rehearsals with the orchestra for the subscription series and our tours and recordings and so on.

BD:    Because of your great choral experience, do you purposely look for great choral works that you can do with the Atlanta Symphony?

RS:    I’ve been doing a good deal of that through the past three or four decades, and we don’t do any more choral work here in Atlanta than we used to do when I was with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.  But certainly, the chorus is a significant part of the seasons of both of those orchestras.

shawBD:    You’ve been involved in recordings for quite a long time, and recording techniques have changed and improved considerably.  When you’re preparing a chorus or an orchestra specifically for a recording, do the new techniques affect the way you prepare it, or do you just let the technicians worry about the technical stuff?

RS:    Yes to both.  I don’t do an awful lot of listening anymore.  In the old days when we began, we were recording on bees wax.  The early records we made with the so-called “Robert Shaw Chorale” or the “RCA/Victor Chorale” were made even before tape came in.  But in the days of tape, I used to spend a lot of time following the recording session in matching tapes and splicing things together.  Now I simply leave that mostly to the technicians.  I find that it’s as much as I can handle to try to get the performances as error-free and as full of life as possible.

BD:    Mm-hm.  Do you find that when you’ve done a performance, done a piece on a subscription concert, and then bring it into the studio—is that more live, and does it have more life, than just something that you worked only for the studio?

RS:    The word
studiois a little bit misleading because we record in our concert hall.  So we have the same sort of acoustical situation as we have for rehearsals, though we don’t have the pleasures or the pains of the presence of an audience.  At least in my experience, if one carries the audience in mind, the performance suffers anyway, as mine did, in my case.  I feel my mind should be upon the performance and not upon the audience, though there’s no doubt that sometimes the presence of people who are manifestly enjoying the communication between performers and listeners can bring a very special thrill to the thing.  One sometimes gets the feeling that when one is working for recording so intently that the danger is that in working so desperately to commit no mistakes, one also manages to commit no life.

BD:    A number of performers and conductors have told me that recording in the studio is not at all the same, and I just wondered how you dealt with that.

RS:    I feel one deals with it the same way.  Your attention must be on the music, and to seek, if possible, the extra-communicable by the music in the composer’s spirit and with the composer’s spirit and intent.  But there are dangers in knowing that the thing is down on tape.  You can’t be too picky since all you can do is scrap it, throw it away.  You don’t have another chance, really.  If you don’t like it, you can’t afford not to issue it.  So this does put some economic and other kinds of pressures upon performance.  I think everybody feels that.  Also, there are simply pressures in the session itself as to time, as to when intermissions have to happen, with what frequency, and for how long.  As one gets closer and closer to the end of the session, or the group of sessions, and there are more and more minutes of the piece yet unrecorded, these sorts of pressures begin to work against the freest and most expressive of performances.

BD:    I just wonder, though, if you find that because you can cut and splice the tape a little bit, that does make some mistakes
at least early in the sessionsa little more expendable?

RS:    Yes, I suppose that’s true.  Our recordings began with analog tape.  Since we now use the digital system, I simply have not participated in any of the editing, other than telling the producer at the session my preferences of the takes.  I have simply not participated in any cutting and splicing at all of these particular recordings.

BD:    Are you pleased with the end product, then? 

shawRS:    I think generally, though again it’d be only fair to say I’ve heard fragments.  That I can recall, I’ve never heard any record we’ve made.  The reviews are better than anything we used to get when we were winning Grammys, but I never listen to any of those.  Other than at the final splicing sessions, I never listened to any of those old recordings or those with the professional chorale, either.  I happened to hear some in traveling in France this summer, because somebody brought me a tape of a bunch of old, old titles that we’d done many years ago.  Things like Whiffenpoof Song and the B-minor Mass — a mélange of things that Victor put out in one of its commercial nightmares.  It was charming and lots of fun, but it’d been the first time, I suppose, in twenty to thirty years that I’d heard anything that we’d made.  We also tape our concerts for broadcast in Atlanta, and other than for our own private study when I’ve had somebody take something off the air for the archives so I can have it to refer back to, I’ve never happened to hear one of those broadcasts, either.

BD:    So then music for you is really a very transitory art.  It’s for today, it’s not for tomorrow.

RS:    Well, it’s that [laughs] other than to help you prepare to do it better.  When one listens to one’s own recordings, one hears only the mistakes.  One’s conscious enough of the mistakes without having them come over and over again.  They’re spinning around every time the record turns.

BD:    Is it a good thing, though, that the public seems to be so enamored of records?

RS:    Oh, I can’t believe that it’s bad.  That’d be a little bit like killing the messenger that brought the bad news.  It isn’t the messenger’s fault and it isn’t the medium’s fault that it is somehow the commercial success of so-called “popular” music which makes it at least a little difficult for more serious music to gain a marketplace.  But I don’t think, in the long run, one can blame the marketplace quite for its taste.

BD:    Speaking of taste, do you find that the taste of the public in general has changed toward serious music over twenty, thirty, forty years?

RS:    I can answer that in a couple of ways, and they say quite opposite things.  I now find that high school choruses in many states in the union — but particularly in Texas, where the high school choral art is raised to such an extraordinary degree — that those choruses there are doing things like the Poulenc Mass in G and the Stravinsky Psalms and things that we used to consider quite difficult even for a professional choir on tour.  Also, in the United States now there simply are record numbers of symphony orchestras that didn’t exist thirty or forty years ago, and the half-dozen fine orchestras of fifty years ago now have another half-dozen to fifteen that can play right along with them.  So in those respects, serious music would appear to have a greater currency and greater support.  But at the same time, the proportion of serious recording, in terms of dollar value to the very transient fads of so-called “popular” music, certainly have fallen.  But now that’s just a personal estimate and a personal guess.  When popular records, you know, reach the million- and almost billion-dollar category, the so-called classical market is an infinitesimal part of that.  So in some respects, it appears to me that despite the growth of communications and media, that somehow the very fine arts have not been served as handsomely as the more commercial art.

BD:    How can we get more people, then, to come to classical music in the 1980s?

RS:    Well, obviously, stations like yours and people like you are doing everything that can be done.  I now have a small home in a community of forty people in the Southwest corner of France, which is an agricultural area, and with principal economy is simply sheepherding.  But we find that people in these little towns of our locale read books and read newspapers that have as much news about the arts as they do of the Tour de France, which is the big bicycle race.  Their conversation is illuminating and stimulating.  They’re far from any major city, but they’re enormously interesting human beings, and they’re independent ideologically.  They simply spend a lot of time dealing with what in the United States we call “matters of culture,” “matters of the intellect.”  I do feel that somehow our whole fabric of society has become a little bit less distinguished intellectually than it was at the time of the founding of our republic and even as late as the Civil War.  Substantially, our politicians are now created by Madison Avenue advertising rather than by inclination or abilities.  The whole fabric of our society is not really distinguished by even the standards of our own history.  I sound depressed because of the questions you’re asking.  I don’t spend my time riding this sort of a dark, gloomy horse, but in response to your question, I do find that these are disturbing times, and that neither as a nation nor as a people are we fulfilling the intellectual and ethical promise of the very beginnings of our nation.


BD:    Are you optimistic that we will come back to it, or is this a dead issue?

RS:    Oh!  One sees young folks around, even in one’s family and one’s family’s friends, from whom it’s possible to have a great deal of affection and in whom it’s possible to find a great deal of hope.  It’s a smart question to ask, and I don’t think there’s any fast answer.  I guess the only answer for me is that one just keeps doing the things that he thinks, in the long run, are right, and should be the proper exercise of man.  For instance, in the years I was touring and in very close retrospect, I found that it had some value.  In terms of our choral performances on tour of the B-minor Mass and the Handel Messiah and such, we were able to bring to communities around the United States performance standards that were substantially impossible for most communities to mount within their own community, or to hear.  This did some good, but substantially, culture is not importable.  I find that what I’m doing in Atlanta
working not only with the symphony but with a volunteer chorus of certain standards and with churches in the community and with the universities of the community and with the high schools of the community and the educational projects — I find that working in one’s own backyard has, somehow, some validity, and that the grand gestures of national and international acclaim are less productive in the long run.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let us talk about American choral music.  How is American choral music different, say, than European choral music?

shawRS:    We can talk about two things
composition and performance.  My present listening to recordings leaves no doubt that England — in the last two decades or certainly since World War II — is having a remarkable resurgence of musicological research and performance standards in the choral art.  There are fine choruses in England.  They always had an extraordinary tradition of the festival-type choruses, of the Mendelssohnian 300- and 400-voice choruses that substantially swamped most of baroque music for almost centuries.  But most recently they’ve been doing significant musicological research which has allowed them to bring together small choirs of very expert singers who do really very, very beautiful work.  In general, I think that the high school and college level of performance in the United States has been remarkable.  Following World War Two, the education of choral conductors at the University level in the United States reached a degree of strenuousness and of intellectual distinction which really passed the preparation of instrumental and orchestral conductors.  Orchestral conductors were still developed in the operatic schooling grounds and so on, but the degrees offered in choral conducting at our major universities and in the major conservatories embraced orchestral conducting and embraced a musicological approach.  It was so necessary because there’d been a good five to six hundred years of choral music to rediscover.  Even Hindemith, whose real concern at Yale was the development of compositional students following the war, had his programs of performance.  It was largely his group’s seminars in the choral literature through which he approached his compositional students.  Anyway, I think the performance level is generally extraordinarily high.  There now has grown up a completely new group of American composers with whom I have less personal contact than I used to have and still have.  William Schuman, Aaron Copland, Sam Barber and the others of that generation, some of whom are gone now.  [See my Interview with William Schuman.]  With the Atlanta Symphony, we’re undertaking now a series of commissions, and I suppose fifteen to twenty-five percent of those commissions will be in the choral-symphonic field.  We have Gian Carlo Menotti and others who are writing works in the choral-symphonic area for us.  [See my Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti.]  Bill Schuman’s doing one which we commissioned along with the New York Philharmonic and a couple of other orchestras.  So some of that repertoire is forthcoming if it’s not with us now, and other people are doing serious commissioning projects, too.  I don’t see any real fecundity as to match, for instance, that of a Francis Poulenc, just a couple of decades ago, with the really considerable number of major works which he wrote for symphony orchestra and chorus, and his a cappella works as well.  Our American composition has not placed as much attention on the choral repertoire as it did in my generation and the succeeding generation.  That attention now is on the straight orchestral repertoire.  At the same time, I’ve been so intimately connected with the symphonic field rather than the choral field.  I’ve been a music director of an orchestra for over forty years now, so my principal attention has been in the instrumental and orchestral literature rather than the choral literature.  The choral literature has been sort of ancillary, and I may not know as much as others know in this field.  But there’s a considerable hope that this literature will expand rapidly within the next half-generation... unless we have some sort of a terrible sociological catastrophe.

BD:    Then let me expand this a little bit to ask you about the current trends in contemporary American music in the orchestral side.  Are you pleased with the direction that it’s going, in American composition?

RS:    My taste and my experience is perhaps limited.  I still like the sentence or two that Stravinsky has in his Poetics of Music
which are his Harvard Norton lectureswhen he speaks of the days being past when Haydn could talk to Mozart and Mozart could talk to Beethoven in terms of their musical language.  He goes on to lament the fact that people strive now for such an individual musical language, one that is so personal that it ceases to be communicative at all, that nobody else speaks his language.  I must say that element of musical composition which seeks to be so unique that it has to invent its own language puts me off.  That’s one of the reasons I find a traditionalist like Hindemith meaningful to me.  Though one would have had a hard time calling a Stravinsky a traditionalist, yet I think substantially it’s true. 

BD:    Was he a traditionalist, or are we now just assimilating his tradition?

RS:    He took a harmonic language that was in existence and added something to it.  He took, at least, a metric structure and symbols which were in existence and made new combinations and new sounds.  I don’t think it’s simply that we’re catching up to Stravinsky, though I must say that his very late compositions, in which he is so very convinced an economical serialist, do not give me the same sort of response and communicative fervor that I experience in Oedipus Rex or in the Firebird or in any of the great major ballets.  But my point is that I don’t think it’s merely that we’re catching up, because the time has now gone on long enough.  I’m sure it’s true that in some respects composers and creators must be ahead of the specific taste of their audience, though it didn’t happen significantly with either Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn.  These men managed to substantially carry their audience along with them.

BD:    I was reading that some of your performances, especially of Messiah some years ago in Cleveland, were hailed as going back to what Handel really had expected.  Now, some years later, it seems that everyone is getting on the bandwagon of doing this kind of performance.


RS:    Yes, and that’s fine because certainly, in terms of Handel, the last two decades have brought so much extraordinary musical information about performance practices, and about the works themselves.  It’s been an enormously rich period in that respect.  One has to be thankful to the media of communications.  If you’re a publisher, you’d be out of your mind now trying to figure what kind of a copyright laws exist because can anything be copyrighted?  But one can only be grateful, in the long run, that now this information begins to be general knowledge.

BD:    Do you see it, then, as a good thing, to go back to original texts?

RS:    Yes.  I was referring to your original question about what’s happening to the taste levels with the flood of possibilities of communication, and so on.  Some aspects of it are extraordinary.  I can remember that beginning even during the war years, before I went into the Navy
— or just after the war... I forget the date that this happenedthe Edwards brothers at the University of Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan was putting out reprints of all of Beethoven and all of Mozart and all of Bach and all of Brahms on superb paper.  We were able to get them at about eight or ten dollars a volume.  Those were rich feasts, indeed.  For a couple thousand dollars one could build a library of every note that Beethoven or Mozart or Brahms or Bach wrote!

BD:    It seems like scores today are getting so outrageously priced that you can’t afford to buy a new score, or even a good copy of an old score.

RS:    Yes.  For instance, if one is purchasing music for a symphony chorus of 200 or 225 people, that which used to be one or two dollars a copy now costs from twelve to twenty.  It’s no wonder that in universities, even of repute around the country, are self-reproducing music for their students to sing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me about working with Toscanini and preparing music for his direction.

shawRS:    It was always, for us, a time of great joy and great happiness, and of no sweat and no strain.  All of us had heard legendary stories about his flights of anger and such, and we witnessed one, but not at our own expense.  So it was a time of felicity and charm.  There was one memorable evening when a group of our choristers — a professional choir which was a forerunner of our later choir that used to tour under my name — was appearing on a performance for NBC on Christmas Eve.  I’d phoned Walter, Toscanini’s son, to ask if we might come up to Riverdale and serenade him after the West Coast broadcast which Guido Cantelli happened to be conducting that evening.  We rehearsed a bunch of Christmas carols which some of us had previously recorded, and got together a little half-hour program.  We went and stood outside his door, and before we could begin singing the door opened and Walter invited us into the house.  Toscanini himself, the maestro, was in a library off the main, large room, which had a staircase that mounted up to the second floor.  He was looking at wrestling on television, as I remember, and we began singing.  He slowly tottered out, and we kept singing for perhaps thirty minutes.  He was just as sweet an audience as he could possibly be.  Then they opened up a room and fed us all Italian cheeses and pastries and champagne, and he went around and spent the rest of night talking to each of the thirty-member chorus who had come up there.  The party broke up at five to six in the morning, and he just simply spent the night talking with people.  But it was always the most friendly when I was there working, preparing, or going over a score with him to get his tempi and his changes of tempi, and what he wanted in terms of dynamics and such at his home.  He was by no means a monster, but a sweet, childlike human being who couldn’t abide people whom he felt were betraying the music.  I think it’s safe to say that his anger was purified by at least two qualities.  First, he was never sorry for himself; he was always sorry for the composer.  That was a rare quality, and the second one was that at least in that period of his life he was childlike.  I witnessed a couple of episodes with orchestras and such at recording sessions, and it was a tantrum which was tempestuous and soon over.  It left only a sort of a shame-faced grin on everybody’s face when it was over, and he substantially didn’t really remember it.  He was a very pure and sweet man.

BD:    You say you would spend time going over scores with him, getting tempi indications and changes.  Did any of these things that he demanded ever surprise you?

RS:    No.  I’m not sure, but I think this is pertinent to your question.  I remember the first time I worked with him.  We were about to perform the Ninth Symphony for the first time with him, and it had been my habit in all of my professional choirs to move people around — to move, for instance, some very lyric tenors around to support low alto things that couldn’t be heard.  I asked him if he would mind if we did some of that moving of the voices around to balance parts that were in danger of being lost, and he said, “I’ve never heard that.  Would that allow those to be heard?”  “Maestro,” I said, “I think that’s the only way it’ll ever be heard.”  He said, “By all means, then we should do it.”  What he wanted was so clearly related to the composer’s markings, and this must have been unique at that time.  At least George Szell told me that this was unique, and that was the thing that attracted him to Toscanini.  Toscanini played an important part in George Szell’s American career by giving him the first opportunity to conduct in the United States.  He invited him to conduct the NBC Symphony, which also happened to be the first orchestra that I ever conducted in my life.  Toscanini asked me to do that, too, a couple of times one summer way back.  I interpreted that as passing along a tradition.  The European schooling had been to learn what the composer had left unsaid, and this allowed a tradition to accumulate.  This meant that the performance style began to add, in spite of itself, layers of personality other than that of the composer.  So what attracted Mr. Szell to Toscanini’s performance was that he somehow attempted to go back and limit himself to what the composer said.  This had been part of the myth about Toscanini as regards tempo, for instance.  In the last couple of decades, since a little tempo watch came into being, I found it’s possible to check tempi within the matter of three or four seconds at the point that the music is going along.  I saw that Toscanini was not nearly so rigid in his tempo qualities.  He was so surreptitious in changing tempo that you never heard it unless you had a watch in your hand.  You never heard the fact that it was somewhat faster or somewhat slower because it was so beautifully proportioned.  I’m not suggesting that it was conscious.  It was just simply his own instinct and his musical security that enabled him to hold to the quality of a tempo which was based not only in response to indications of the composer, but also to harmonic changes and melodic tensions and so on, and to so adjust the thing that it sounded as though you’re holding tempo.  If he had held it absolutely rigidly, it might have sounded that he was distorting tempo.

BD:    So that’s the supreme interpretive process, really.

RS:    I think it obviously is one of them!  It obviously is one of them.

BD:    You prepared quite a number of things for Toscanini.  Was there any difference in preparing opera choruses for him, as opposed to the Ninth Symphony or the Verdi Requiem?

RS:    None that I know, but I didn’t prepare any of them for the stage.  We were doing them in concert form and I wasn’t conscious of any differences.  It was music is music, and the chorus was placed in substantially the same position it would have been for anything else.  It might be a somewhat smaller chorus for opera than for one of the grand symphonic choral works, but not really.  Even those operas had choruses of as many as 100 voices.  I can’t recall, but the Verdi Requiem or the Missa Solemnis was with more than 100 voices, perhaps 110.  But so far as I can tell, there were no differences.  But there were language problems!  We’d have to hire very, very fine Italian coaches to be sure that it was done right.  When we were recording we used to be very meticulous about our languages.

BD:    Later on, were you surprised that some of these broadcasts were issued on recordings?

shawRS:    No, I guess not.  I don’t happen to have a discography of my own things, though I’m looking now in my studio and I suppose there are 115 records or so that I’ve made, and there have to be one or two of them with Toscanini.  But we were doing this for broadcast, and it was substantially the same thing.  One could wish in retrospect, that not so much of that broadcast had been committed to Studio 8H at NBC, and a few more recording sessions were given to Carnegie Hall.

BD:    Because of the acoustics?

RS:    Yes.  One would wish that.

BD:    Was Toscanini different in the recording studio than he was in the broadcast studio?

RS:    I’m trying to think...  No, I don’t think there was any difference in recording or broadcast.  Each one of those things we did with them was also a performance with an audience.  I’d have a hard time recalling which particular piece it was, but I think I can remember some recording sessions, strictly recording sessions in Carnegie Hall, when there wasn’t an audience in attendance.  But the point was we’d done it the night before with an audience, so there always was an audience involved at some point.

BD:    So then if you traipsed to Carnegie Hall, it was just like re-creating what had happened the night before?

RS:    Yes.

BD:    Is that, perhaps, the ideal way to record almost anything?

RS:    I don’t know.  Yes, if one has just had the opportunity to do the performances.  For instance, some of our best records came out of sessions following a tour.  Our second recording of the B-minor Mass followed a tour of six weeks in the United States where we had done thirteen performances every two weeks, which means that we did 39 performances in 42 days.  We must have waited maybe a week when we got back, and then went into recording studio.  In that situation, we needed a little time to recoup from the fatigue of touring and multiple performances.  I’m thinking mostly of vocal fatigue, rather than just general artistic tiredness.  We happen to do triples here in Atlanta.

BD:    Thursday-Friday-Saturday?

RS:    Yes, Thursday-Friday-Saturday, and so our major recordings are made with one session on Saturday afternoon before the Saturday night performance, and then two recording sessions on Sunday, or one on Sunday and one on Monday.  Now we’re working with a combination of volunteers and professionals.  It’s not all professionals as our recordings were with Toscanini, so you have to call them when your professionals are available.  That gives you a little bit of difficulty in scheduling, and with a 52-week orchestra, you’ve got next week coming up.  You’ve got all the preparation for that, so it’s hard to squeeze recording sessions into a busy year-round schedule.  But the best recordings, I think, come after multiple performances.  I’m glad about our recent recording of the Brahms Requiem.  The first one was recorded forty years ago, and there have been, I suppose, 100 performances since then with various groups and various degrees of professionality.  It’s nice now to be able to record some of those works with which one has had a familiarity of forty or fifty years.  I’m facing the recording of the Mozart Requiem next year, and one has the advantage at this point of having the new musicological research, a reconstruction of a re-orchestration.  I think we’ll go ahead with the traditional Sussmayr vocal edition that came out, but we’ll borrow some of the new ideas on how Mozart might better have orchestrated it than happened in his student’s hands.  There is now a new edition which re-creates several of the movements and throws out those movements which Sussmayr constructed out of whole cloth, so I think we’ll substantially record the bones of that old traditional version, but in its new orchestral clothes.  My point is that with that particular piece, I’d all but forgotten that we recorded it very, very early, in the late ’30s or early ’40s.  I’ve had that on the tour of South America, and the tour of twenty-one countries in Europe, and two American tours.  I must have conducted more than 200 performances of that particular work, and yet I haven’t recorded it for forty years.  So it’s nice to have the opportunity to do those things that one has lived with that long.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you have any advice for young conductors, either choral or orchestral?

shawRS:    Pick a great school.  That’s important.  Next, I’ll speak from my own frailties.  Develop keyboard facilities because they help enormously in the accumulation of intelligence.  One can simply study scores so much faster than one can without pianistic facility.  The third thing would be don’t wait for an appointment to be the musical director of some group, but start your own.  Always have a group of some sort functioning, whether it’s six high school kids at an evangelical church in southwest Louisiana, or whatever, but don’t be without a performing instrument.

BD:    So there’s really no substitute for raw experience?

RS:    Not only that, but music is a collaborative art and there’s no substitute for being able to get along with people.  Also one needs to be able to arouse, to interest people in musical performance.  Music is not a solo art.  It involves.  I’m not even speaking of an audience yet, but as performers it almost always involves an accompanist at the very minimum.  The craft also has human communicative aspects, and they’re not learned in isolation.  But you’re absolutely right, one cannot afford to be excommunicated from the reality of sound.  One of the most surprising questions I get asked time after time is, “Mr. Shaw, where did you develop your choral sound?”  My response is,
Doesn’t everybody sound that way?  If not, why not, because it should!  I know that there are two great choral traditions in the United Statesthe John Finley Williamson Westminster Choir tradition, and the Christiansen Lutheran tradition.  One is full of operatic vibrato and the second is absolutely devoid of it, but the truth lies somehow in between.  With great voices, if one does not develop an ear for sound so that he hears a great vocal sound and then seeks to reproduce it in his own instrument, it’s too bad.  I’m speaking now, obviously, of choral conductors, but it’s also true for all leaders.  The symphony orchestra is bound to change.  Tchaikovsky and Ormandy together built the Philadelphia sound, and even somebody like George Szellwho liked a few more angles and a few less curves than the Philadelphia Orchestra represented in those years — was just extraordinarily enamored of that Philadelphia lushness.

BD:    That’s a lot of very sage advice, and a lot of great memories about your musical career.  I really appreciate your taking the time this afternoon to speak with me.  Thank you so very much.

RS:    Thank you.  It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.  You were so gracious yesterday when I had to postpone this visit.  I still have this couple of weeks before the season opens.  I did have some illness at the end of last year, so I’m a little bit behind.  I just have to get fifteen or twenty scores into the library for the first three or four or five weeks of the season.  My principle is that the orchestra player has every right to ask how loud do you want it, or how soft, or how fast, or how slow, or where do you want the crescendo, and so on.  If you mark all those things in the parts, if you can make the five- or six-thousand critical markings in a score that will answer all of the orchestral players’ questions, they need not be asked in rehearsal, and it saves a hell of a lot of money!  [Laughs]  It doesn’t have to stop the rehearsal.  So we follow the custom in our library, of trying to make it possible for the musician to have in front of him exactly what he’s supposed to be doing and when he’s supposed to be doing it.  We feel it leaves the musicians free to then use his own intelligence to add whatever he can to that.  So that’s what I’ve been doing. 
Anyway, you’ve been just as gracious as you could be, and I thank you for you kindness.


Robert Shaw (Conductor)

Born: April 30, 1916 - Red Bluff, California, USA
Died: January 25, 1999 - New Haven, USA

In his long career which spanned six decades and four cities, Robert Shaw transformed choral conducting into an art, and nearly single-handedly raised it to a new level. For more than half a century he set the standard of excellence for choral music, enjoying a status of patriarch of vocal musical interpretation in the USA.

shawRobert (Lawson) Shaw came from a clerical family. His father and grandfather were ministers. More importantly, perhaps, his mother sang in church choirs. In school his serious interests were in philosophy, literature, and religion, but at Pomona College he did join the glee club. Then, in a chain of events right out of a Warner Brothers backstage musical, Shaw was asked to take over the choir for an ailing faculty leader the same year that Fred Waring happened to be making a film on the campus. Waring was impressed, asked him to go to New York to develop a glee club for him.

As early as 1943, the National Association of Composers and Conductors cited him as "America's greatest choral conductor."

Arturo Toscanini was conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with his NBC Symphony Orchestra. After hearing the chorus, which had been prepared by Robert Shaw, Toscanini turned to his players and said, "In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for."

With the founding of the Robert Shaw Chorale in New York in 1948, his fame and influence in the field became second to none in the world.  He led the group on extensive tours throughout Europe, the Soviet Union, Latin America, and the Middle East under the auspices of the State Department. For his esteemed Chorale, he commissioned pieces from the leading composers of the day including Béla Bartók, Darius Milhaud, Benjamin Britten, and Aaron Copland.

Shaw also served as music director of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra until he was recruited by George Szell to conduct the choral section of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. He served under Szell for 11 years.

In 1967 Robert Shaw accepted the directorship of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and saw it grow from a local band of 60 part-time amateur musicians to a fine major-league orchestra.  When he retired in 1988, the orchestra comprised 93 professional players.  He also established a magnificent choral adjunct and led the combined forces in many definitive recordings of the symphonic-choral music literature, eleven of which won Grammy awards. Shaw won four other Grammy awards and was nominated for two more. Earlier in his career, he recorded the first classical album on the RCA label to sell over a million copies.

The recipient of 40 honorary degrees and citations including the George M. Peabody Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the National Medal of Arts, Robert Shaw was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame at New York's Julliard School of Music. In 1991, he received the Kennedy Center Honors, America's highest award for artistic achievement. He founded the Robert Shaw Institute which encourages the creation and production of choral art and sponsors the Robert Shaw Festival.

© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on August 24, 1985.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1986, 1987, 1991, 1996 and 1999.  It was transcribed and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.