The Shaw Story

Robert Shaw is known internationally as the icon of choral music. In a career that spanned over 60 years, he conducted some of the most remarkable music performed in the 20th century. His choruses, often composed of amateur singers, had a unique sound; vibrant, nuanced and transcendent. Thrust into the limelight from the outset, Shaw achieved critical acclaim within weeks of taking the stage as a professional conductor. In 1945, before he was 30 years old, he had made real musical contributions, collaborating with Fred Waring and Billy Rose in the entertainment world, and Leopold Stokowski, Serge Koussevitzky, and Arturo Toscanini, among the most gifted conductors of their time in the world of serious music. Later, he conducted orchestras and choruses in San Diego, Cleveland and Atlanta. President Jimmy Carter chose Shaw to plan and perform music at his 1977 Presidential Inauguration. Shaw also took his inspiring music on the road, in this country and to several continents, where Egyptians applauded Bach and Eskimos encored Brahms. Along the way he sold millions of recordings and received 16 Grammy Awards, a Peabody, a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Medal of the Arts. No one had ever made such a lasting impression performing serious choral music, nor has it been done since. Shaw became a superstar in an intensely competitive business where musical pedigree is considered to be everything. And yet, Robert Shaw was not a gifted singer, lacked formal training as a keyboardist and conductor, and in fact as a young man, never dreamed of having a life in music.

Robert Shaw conducts the Collegiate Chorale at the first session in the United Nations building, 1953.

At the age of 20, Shaw’s plan was to follow his father’s footsteps and become a minister. He studied philosophy, literature and religion at Pomona College. Music, however, had always been a joy in his life, singing in church and with his musically talented family around the piano. As a diversion from his studies, Shaw joined the campus glee club and eventually served as its conductor, but without great ambitions. In 1937, however, a serendipitous event would forever change the course of Shaw’s life. Fred Waring, a popular musician, bandleader and radio personality of the era, was at Pomona College making a film. He attended a concert by the glee club and was deeply impressed with Shaw’s leadership of the group. Waring immediately offered Shaw a job conducting in New York. But Shaw declined the offer. Young and untrained, he lacked confidence in his abilities, a theme that would recur throughout his life. A year later, however, needing money for seminary education, Shaw said yes and made the move to New York, planning to work for Fred Waring only briefly. The opportunity proved to be a life changing experience. Shaw remained in New York for the next 15 years and never looked back.

It seems that Robert Shaw had found his true calling and he quickly made a name for himself in a variety of venues. His raw talent and exceptional ear along with a remarkable gift for communicating musical ideas enabled him to create an impressive and powerful choral sound. Shaw’s years in New York were frenetic and filled with opportunity. By the 1940s, due to numerous radio broadcasts, sound recordings, Broadway shows, and live performances, his name and his unique musical style became widely known across the country. Robert Shaw emerged as a man of many voices, creating music in different settings for different audiences while stretching his own talents. During this time, he landed a job preparing the chorus for famed conductor Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Toscanini, known for his intensity, perfectionism, and phenomenal ear, is quoted as saying, “As for Robert Shaw, I have at last found the Maestro I have been looking for.” Shaw was 29 years old, without the requisite musical foundation, yet enjoying stunning musical popularity.

“For me at least, the arts may provide the day by day confirmation of a Creator’s hand still at work in the lives and affairs of men.”
— Robert Shaw

The years in New York, however, were not without difficulties. As a young man, he indulged in drink and the company of women, creating trouble in his marriage and increasing the pressures mounting in his soaring career. Shaw was caught between his serious and reverent devotion to making music and lapses of good judgment in his personal life. By any measure Shaw was a complicated man, equally at home conducting a large ensemble or sharing a pint at the pub with colleagues. He was a man grounded by his own struggles and limitations but also driven and focused, aspiring to the lofty aims of the composers whose works he performed.
In the 1950s, Shaw’s reputation continued to grow, enhanced by two key factors: his worldwide touring, and his extensive discography. He recorded a wide range of music, from timeless works of choral and operatic art to folk songs and spirituals. On his tours he performed the same variety, but always with a core of serious choral repertoire. Shaw contended that the small towns were as hungry for good classical music as were the big cities, and that it was no different in Yugoslavia or Turkey. Bach and Hindemith were dished out liberally, and the audiences responded enthusiastically. Even in the Soviet Union, where public expression of religion was widely suppressed, the B minor Mass visibly touched its many listeners.

Shaw was finding his voice, one that was eclectic, passionate, and spiritual. Music for Shaw was humbling and it drove his idealist tendencies. He worked tirelessly and asked the same of his choristers. As such, he could be demanding, even difficult. But he was also a great mentor and leader, as evidenced by the popularity of his choruses and his influence in many musical circles. Not surprisingly such early and wide success finally took its toll on Shaw. Rarely home, his family life suffered and eventually ended in divorce. The pressures of frequent recording mounted as well, and Shaw’s frustrations grew from often difficult and even abusive behavior on the podium to one day walking completely away from a recording session. But Robert Shaw was not simply a demanding taskmaster; he was a visionary creating vital music in a swiftly changing world.

Shaw on the road with members of the Robert Shaw Chorale during an after performance party.

Just as he did not discriminate in his choice of musical repertoire based on the locale of his audiences, neither did he show anything but acceptance of all races when it came to the embrace of music. Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale of the 1940’s was one of the first integrated musical ensembles of its kind. His unwavering beliefs were tested early and often. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, famous minister of the church where Shaw’s Chorale initially rehearsed, insisted that Robert Shaw eliminate diversity in his chorus if they were to continue their residence in Peale’s church. Shaw refused, and moved his chorus to a more tolerant church home. In the 50’s and 60’s, The Robert Shaw Chorale toured in locations where blacks were not always welcome. Intolerant management often forced the group to second rate hotels and restaurants, but Shaw refused to perform unless audiences were integrated. And the maestro was specific – not just access, but access to the better seats in the hall.

It was during this period that Shaw was given the opportunity to expand his horizons as an orchestral conductor, first in San Diego and later in Cleveland. But as with his first job offer in New York, Shaw initially declined these opportunities, struggling with insecurity about his lack of formal training. These were demanding jobs, especially the position in Cleveland under the direction of the brilliant and notoriously difficult George Szell, and Shaw questioned his own ability to perform at this level. Young conductors typically study at the best conservatories – Juilliard, Curtis, Eastman – and vie for internships with major orchestras while still in their twenties. Shaw was now in his forties and had taken a unique path to professional conducting, one that exposed the serious gaps in his training. The irony here is striking. Shaw was in the midst of tremendous success, and yet he suffered from great uncertainty due in large part to his unique understanding of the enormous depth, subtlety and beauty of music itself.

Despite his initial insecurities, Shaw grew professionally and personally in the positions in San Diego and Cleveland. And though he made several honest attempts to more formally address his lack of training, the case can be made that Shaw’s deficiency was a motivating force in his life. He worked intensely and thought constantly about music, developing techniques utilized throughout the country today. He was always learning and with such passion that he could not help but communicate everything he had learned to his musicians. He wrote voluminous letters to all of his choruses, starting early in his career, until the last weeks of his life, sharing, explaining, teaching, communicating. These letters are an art form unto themselves, exploding with creativity, sharing as much about humanity as music. His goal was to expand the thinking and musical experience of his choristers in rehearsal so that the music might transcend into shimmering performance. The result was simply remarkable, and exceptionally consistent.

“The wonderful thing about the amateur chorus is that nobody can buy its attendance at rehearsals, or the sweat, eyestrain and fatigue that go along with the glow.”
— Robert Shaw

In addition, Shaw’s amateur beginnings may have contributed to his embrace of all forms of music. His musical world was not limited to the classics, but included folk songs, spirituals, hymns, opera, and carols. He insisted, despite the exhaustion of touring, on taking his Robert Shaw Chorale to dozens of countries, and to towns large and small in the U.S., touching those in the audience with the true essence of the music.

Robert Shaw's first rehearsal with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians in an unused Atlanta school building on 10th Street, 1967.

In 1967, drawn by the social justice leadership in Atlanta, Shaw accepted the position as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. And it was in Atlanta that Shaw finally found his home personally and professionally. Shaw remarried and started a new family finding a balance in his life he had never truly known. But even the early years in Atlanta proved to be a challenge. In his mid-50s and at the apex of his career, he eagerly pushed his pent-up desire to program new music and move beyond the standard classical repertoire. But his ambitions struck a sour note with the symphony board which preferred a more conservative approach to programming. The Atlanta arts community championed his cause however, purchasing 3,500 new season subscriptions in support of their new maestro. Shaw spent the next quarter century “at home” in Atlanta, achieving myriad milestones, building a world-class orchestra and making dozens of recordings, many Grammy winners. These Atlanta years allowed Shaw’s fame to soar in the world of classical music as he established an unprecedented ongoing relationship with Carnegie Hall and continued to travel to music capitals with his choruses. In a career of remarkable achievements, the pinnacle was perhaps the 1988 European concert tour, where Shaw and his forces reached over the Berlin Wall and beckoned the teary, eager and highly responsive Eastern Bloc audience towards freedom and brotherhood. Concerning a particularly memorable concert, a reviewer from the Atlanta Constitution wrote of Shaw’s chorus: “Their stunningly emotional performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin ended with nine curtain calls”- an unprecedented event, especially for Germany. Many of the musicians performing that day refer to it, even 22 years later, as the most thrilling concert of their lifetime.

Shaw stayed on as director emeritus in Atlanta until his death in 1999, remaining in high demand as a guest conductor the world over. What he accomplished in his 60 years of music making is staggering, especially considering his lack of training and serendipitous introduction to conducting. There are very few people in any generation who have the opportunity and the ability to make a significant impact on such a hallowed institution as classical music. And yet all the awards, accolades and albums remain only as artifacts of a great career. Shaw’s real contribution was to elevate choral singing to a new place. He created techniques and approaches still in use today. But perhaps most importantly it was Shaw’s ability to communicate his understanding of the possibilities of music that is his true legacy. His talents, his passion, his charisma, and his genius were unique, and with them, one man made an indelible mark on the world of music. Robert Shaw touched untold musicians and listeners, and most of them walked away from this experience changed forever.