Born Robert Lawson Shaw on April 30, 1916, in Red Bluff, CA; died on January 25, 1999, in New Haven, CT; married twice; three sons: Thomas Lawson Shaw, Peter Thain Shaw, and John Thaddeus Shaw, one daughter: Dr. Johanna Shaw, and one step-son: Alexander Crawford Hitz. Education: Graduated from Pomona College, 1938.

Robert Shaw is considered one of the most significant choral conductors of the twentieth century. Through his work with the renowned Robert Shaw Chorale and other ensembles, he raised the standards for choral conducting to those of orchestral conductors. He pioneered techniques for preparing and rehearsing choral groups that are now used throughout the world. "Earlier on, you wouldn't even have called choral directors conductors," Dennis Keene of New York's Ascension Music told the New York Times. "They were chorus masters. Shaw changed all that."

Robert Lawson Shaw was born on April 30, 1916, in Red Bluff, California. Shaw's father was a minister, and his mother was an accomplished singer and frequently directed the choirs in her husband's churches. As a result, Shaw and his brothers and sisters were exposed to singing and singers from an early age, and he began working with choirs himself. "All five children ended up in music," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Sarah Bryan Miller. "All of us directed a choir to help pay our way through school." By the time he had reached his teens, Shaw was skilled at working with singing groups.

Shaw studied literature and philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and looked forward to a career in the ministry. Continuing his interest in music, though, Shaw took over directing the college glee club on a temporary basis. When Fred Waring came to town with his popular vocal ensemble to make a movie, Waring heard the Pomona Glee Club and was impressed enough to offer Shaw a job. Shaw hesitated at first, but soon changed his mind. He moved to New York at the end of 1938 and assembled the Fred Waring Glee Club.

Shaw built a reputation through his work with Waring. "Every word could be understood, the intonation and balances were flawless," Stephen Wigler wrote in the Baltimore Sun, describing the sensation Shaw's group created, "and singing teachers around the country began to tell their students to listen to the programs for examples of excellent singing." Before long, Shaw was working on Broadway musicals with Oscar Hammerstein and Billy Rose. He became known as a choral director who was able to miraculously create cohesion among groups of amateur singers. In 1941, Shaw founded his own group, the Collegiate Chorale, made completely of amateurs who paid annual dues of $10 to support the group. Shaw never had reservations about working with non-professional singers, though. "There's almost no limit to the competence of devoted amateurs," he told Michael Anthony of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I've often thought it was as difficult to be a professional about music as it would be to be professional about sex," he commented with a smile to Los Angeles Times writer Kenneth Herman. "It's terribly important to retain that amateur spirit, because the root of 'amateur' means to love what you are doing."

The Collegiate Chorale made its debut at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1942. Not much later, Shaw met Arturo Toscanini, then the conductor of the NBC Radio Orchestra, who asked him to prepare the NBC Chorus for a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the "choral symphony." Toscanini was skeptical, telling Shaw he had never heard a satisfactory performance of the Ninth. However, Toscanini enthused after the performance that it was the first time he had heard the piece really sung. "In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for," Toscanini told his musicians, according to Wigler. Shaw worked with Toscanini for much of the decade, molding the chorus into a flexible, responsive instrument. By 1943, Shaw had made such a name for himself that the National Association of Composers and Conductors named him America's greatest choral conductor.

The Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra were founded in 1948. The chorale is his best-known group, the one for which Shaw is most renowned. During its 17 years, the chorale made countless recordings, won several Grammy Awards, and gave concerts in over 30 countries under the United States State Department's auspices. The chorale was a professional ensemble made up of approximately 35 voices. When Shaw put the group together, he found there was no lack of talent. Trained singers were flocking to New York hoping to make a career. The quality of the chorale in the late 1940s astounded even Shaw himself more than 40 years later. "We certainly don't have those high-profile professional choral groups any more," he told Herman in 1991. "When I listen to some of my earlier records--which I do when Telarc wants me to re-record some of the things we used to do then--I'm astounded at the quality of the vocal sound, which seems to me to be remarkable."

During the 1950s, the name Robert Shaw was practically synonymous with choral singing and directing. Between his television and radio appearances, his recordings, and his concerts, Shaw was nearly ubiquitous. But his work with Toscanini had awakened a desire to move into symphonic conducting. By the late 1940s, Shaw had begun to make the transition. In 1946, he made his conducting debut with the Naumburg Orchestra in New York. Later he participated in formal studies with conductors Pierre Monteux and Artur Rodzinski, and in 1952, was invited by George Szell to guest conduct the Cleveland Orchestra. That initial position changed to an ongoing relationship when Shaw became the orchestra's associate conductor in 1956. Shaw would later say that his time with the Cleveland Orchestra was critical to his development.

Shaw remained with the Cleveland Orchestra until 1967, while at the same time continuing his work with his chorale. By the time he ended his stint there, the Los Angeles Times paid Shaw the highest praise: "It is worth noting that Shaw has become an all-purpose conductor first, and specifically a conductor of choruses second." He left Cleveland and disbanded his chorale to become conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, the biggest challenge of his musical career. When he arrived in Georgia, he found an orchestra manned largely by amateur musicians who performed in a civic arena. By the 1990s, the ensemble had recorded a number of best-selling records for the Telarc label, albums that earned fourteen Grammy Awards.

Shaw's tenure in Atlanta was not without controversy. He programmed modern works along with the standard, pre-1880 classical repertoire, causing the orchestra's executive committee to decide he was performing too much modern music and fire him in 1972. The action unleashed a storm of protests in Atlanta. "There were kids out on the street corners with wastepaper baskets selling season tickets," Shaw told Michael Anthony of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "They asked that the checks be made out to the Atlanta Symphony and Robert Shaw, which meant they had to be co-signed. The point was there was a whole group of people who wanted the new music, and they had never been organized before." The orchestra relented, and Shaw stayed in Atlanta until 1988.

When Shaw finally resigned, however, he in no way retired. He organized the Robert Shaw Choral Institute at Ohio State University, a doctoral program focusing on both musicology and performance. He also started the Robert Shaw Festival, a series of workshops and seminars for choral conductors and singers. The festival is supported by a foundation, the Robert Shaw Institute, and an association of benefactors based in France called Les Amis de Robert Shaw. For much of the last decade of his life, Shaw and his wife, Caroline Saulas, divided their time between homes in Atlanta and Souillac, France, where the Robert Shaw Institute had its offices. After Caroline died in 1995, Shaw relocated the institute and festival to the United States.

Over the years, both musicians and general audiences alike were astounded by the sound Shaw's choral groups were able to achieve. Anthony defined what he believed to be Shaw's formula for his remarkable choral sound: "(1) a lyric soprano sound as opposed to that of a dramatic soprano, (2) a concern for even balance among the sections, (3) an insistence on clear articulation of words, which he attributes to his early work with Fred Waring, and (4) a steady rhythm." Shaw was not a dictator on the podium like many other famous conductors, but he had no patience for inaccurate pitch or sloppy rhythms from his singers. He worked patiently to get the precision he valued, and he was just as demanding of himself as a conductor: "The business of the conductor is to get out of the way of the composer, rather than interpose himself," he told Karen Campbell of the Christian Science Monitor. "Music is ultimately an art of collaboration, not personal showmanship. Even at the moment of a cappella singing, one is obliged to remember that somebody else wrote the song."

Shaw died on January 25, 1999, in New Haven, Connecticut, at the age of 82. His last concert, during which he performed the Christmas portion of Handel's Messiah and Bach's Magnificat, was given on December 18, 1998.

by Gerald E. Brennan

Robert Shaw's Career

Assembled Fred Waring Glee Club, 1938; formed Collegiate Chorale, 1941; worked with Arturo Toscanini and NBC Symphony, early 1940s; served on the faculty at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, 1942-45; named America's greatest choral conductor by National Association of Composers and Conductors, 1943; made orchestral conducting debut with Naumburg Orchestra, 1946; organized Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra, 1948; conductor of San Diego Symphony, 1953-58; became associate conductor of Cleveland Orchestra, 1956; disbanded Robert Shaw Chorale to become director of Atlanta Symphony, 1967; conducted his only opera, Berlioz's The Damnation of Faustwith the Opera Company of Boston, MA, 1978; resigned Atlanta directorship, 1988; organized Robert Shaw Festival, early 1990s.

Robert Shaw's Awards

Guggenheim Fellowship; Grammy Awards include: Best Classical Choral Performance, 1961; Best Classical Choral Performance, 1964; Best Classical Choral Performance, 1965; Best Classical Choral Performance, 1966; Best Classical Orchestral Recording, Best Choral Performance, Best Classical Album, 1985; Best Choral Performance,1987; Best Choral Performance, Best Orchestral Recording, Best Classical Album, 1988; Best Choral Performance, 1989; Best Choral Performance,1990; Best Choral Performance, 1997; Best Choral Performance, Best Classical Album, 1998; additional awards include Gramophone Magazine Award, Best Choral Work, 1989; Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award for Performing Artists, 1991; National Medal of Arts, 1992; French Order of Officier des Arts et Lettres; inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, 1998.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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