Robert Shaw as a Friend
HD: There’s another aspect to him that I’d like you to reflect on for a moment. We hear how he cares very deeply about people that are close to him. Walter Gould told us a week ago about how Mr. Shaw talked to him, to Mr. Gould, and walked with him after the death of Mr. Gould’s wife. And I know that Mr. Shaw is very close to Clayton Krehbiel.* Tell me about those kinds of experiences and what that brings out in your husband.
* Friend and associate from Robert Shaw Chorale days and director of the Florida State University choral music program until his death in 1988.
Caroline Shaw: I think the only - I mean, those are interesting points, but I think they only illustrate his total tender-heartedness. He has the kindest, gentlest, tenderest heart I’ve ever seen. He’s just a great big old puddle of tears sometimes. And he really does care about people. He doesn’t care about - he can become very exasperated, too. But the people that have been with him through the years, he’s just absolutely devoted to, would do anything for them. And he touches - I don’t know - he has a unique ability to touch people where they are, whether in joy or in sorrow, more immediately than anybody I’ve ever known. He really has a human warmth and ability to communicate it that is more direct and more, just almost palpably touching than anybody that I have ever seen. He really does. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a physical thing mixed with emotion and intellect, too. He’s remarkable.
Shaw’s Exasperations and Frustrations
HD: You say that he gets exasperated. What sorts of things annoy him?
Caroline Shaw: I think he is annoyed by incompetence. He’s annoyed by lack of industry. He works terribly hard himself and he never asks anyone to work any harder than he’s willing to work. But he doesn’t understand why some people simply will not work as hard as they need to to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. But mostly he’s very tolerant and the only times that he does – that his temper comes out really are times when he is under a lot of performance related stress. That really is true. And things then that would never bother him any other time bother him. But I think that probably is true of everyone who has to produce before the public.
Producer: Frustrations. Does that ring a bell for you?
HD: Well, a distant one. I’m just trying to think - we haven’t covered that yet, eh?
Producer: Not really. Part of the exasperations might deal with some of the frustrations he has but are there job related frustrations with managing still large symphonic choruses even though he’s got people to help him but, obviously, he feels a lot of nuts and bolts. He’s calling people at 7 in the morning I gather, sometimes 7:30, to deal with certain issues; sorting out this evening’s rehearsal or this morning’s rehearsal, whatever.
Caroline Shaw: Well, every detail of every aspect of what he does is important to him. And so, yes, 7 o’clock in the morning, 4 o’clock in the morning if he thinks about it in the middle of the night. He never stops. The mind never stops sort of churning around all the things that need to be done.
The frustrations are related to the things that I’ve just said - to him when people just simply don’t produce what they’re supposed to produce. His frustrations, though, frequently are with himself. I think the fact that he never studied music formally is always a frustration to him. He feels that he is very slow. I don’t think that he is accurate in that assessment. I think he knows as much as anybody does. I know that he works slowly, his mind works slowly. He’s very quick to grasp things. He’s very deliberate in everything that he does and this is a little slower than he wishes it would be.
But this wonderful child of ours, Thomas, who is 14 now, is exactly like him. And it is so much fun to see Thomas’ mind work. To observe Thomas’ mind at work has taught me a lot about Robert’s mind and vice versa. I can understand some of the things Thomas is thinking and going through because I know his father’s mind so well. And they are just alike. Thomas is brilliant but he is very slow and deliberate about everything he does. And his father is, too. And his own lack of just being able to look at something immediately and be able to play it on the piano, is a total frustration to Robert. He has to read out every note. And he admires so much people who do have a great alacrity with the musical material. He just thinks they are geniuses and he feels totally inferior to them in every way.
HD: Would you say he’s a perfectionist?
Caroline Shaw: The most extreme perfectionist that I have ever seen in my life. Yes. He is. And this is part of his frustration, I think, too, because all perfectionists are frustrated at times. And I am enough of one, too, to understand the way he feels. But when you’re a perfectionist, you expect that other people are, too, and most people aren’t. So that make it a little hard to deal sometimes I think with…
HD: Has he ever had performances where he feels he got ‘pretty close’ to perfection?
Caroline Shaw: He’s had performances that please him. I doubt that he would ever say that he felt that he’d gotten pretty close to perfection because, as he says, in any great work of art there are just too many possibilities of error, of fore-error. He would never say he’d gotten near perfection but he has certainly had performances that please him enormously. He’s also had performances that have absolutely disappointed him. And he always feels it’s his fault. It’s never the chorus’ fault or the orchestra’s fault. It’s his fault for not having been able to bring it along to where he wanted it to be.
HD: What does he do after a performance when he’s not happy?
Caroline Shaw: Occasionally he’ll walk home from Symphony Hall, back in the early days, which is 8 miles. But he just keeps working. He just keeps working very hard when he is disappointed.
HD: What does he do when he is happy?
Caroline Shaw: Keeps working. But has a wonderful time and is relaxed and cracking jokes, and, you know.
HD: Has his dinner?
Caroline Shaw: Yeah. Very easy. Yes, has his dinner. After a performance he comes home and reads the newspaper and reads it to me while I’m getting the little supper together and we have a nice little time. That’s the way he relaxes.
The Shaw Blue Uniform
HD: We’ve seen him at work on many occasions and his ‘uniform’ is unvarying, it seems. He wears a dark blue shirt, and the baggiest pair of trousers I’ve ever seen. Why is that?
Caroline Shaw: Well, he said that he started wearing navy blue because it didn’t look so sweat stained and he does perspire enormously, from his head mostly, but it covers him. As far as the pants are concerned, he adores the French farmers and small artisans’ virtual uniform which is the blue denim: Denim first was made in France: du Nimes, in the town of Nimes. And he buys them at the street fairs. They have jackets - these round-collared jackets and these pants. The cloth is simply wonderful. It is called a moleskin denim. It’s very heavy, very soft denim and they’re terribly comfortable. He has about, oh, maybe a dozen of those suits. And about two dozen of the blue shirts in this country and two dozen in France. And Nola, his wonderful Secretary whom you may or may not have met yet, refers to our laundry room as ‘My Blue Heaven”.
HD: So, comfort is high on the list of priorities?
Caroline Shaw: Not to have to be aware of anything other than the music, I think is the main thing.
Shaw’s Motivating Factor
HD: If you were to stand back and view this man objectively, and I think that’s pretty hard for you to do, but, what would you say drives him? What is the one underlying quintessential motivating factor that keeps Robert Shaw going?
Caroline Shaw: One would be hard. I think there’s all that sort of evangelical background – growing up in the church as the son of a long line of Protestant ministers on both sides of his family who were always connected with music in some way. I think those two strains are equally strong.
The communication of a mission, the feeling that what he’s doing is really of importance, has to be an element in everything that he does. And I think that the fact that he sort of stepped away from the church and into music, he brings to it the same passion to communicate in the same sense of feeling that it is humanly, intellectually, spiritually important to do what he is doing, that this is the highest expression of man’s creativity, and that this is important to do.
HD: Is he religious?
Caroline Shaw: He’s the most religious man that I have ever known in my life and totally non-traditionally so. If you asked him what he believed in, you would be fascinated and it’s what I believe in, too, and that’s one plane on which we meet so happily. But it is certainly not in anybody else’s description of any deity or - it’s just fabulous. The mystery is what he’s in awe of. It’s just the great, indescribable mystery.
Yes, he’s very spiritual but he doesn’t - he can’t stand most of the liturgical utterances of churches, of the organized church, the institutional church. He loves the music and he loves the old prayers in the old English. We don’t have to know what every word relates to even. It’s just beautiful language.
But what motivates him? In addition to the depth of what he needs to be involved in, is just this incredible energy, too, I think - this wanting everybody to feel it the way he does; the people he works with and the people to whom the work is aimed. And, you were there. You saw that energy last week, hour after hour and the man’s 75 years old. I mean, really! It is incredible! I am 20 years younger than he is and I had to start taking vitamin pills when I married him because I simply couldn’t keep up with him. But it sure is fun to try.
HD: Is he in good health?
Caroline Shaw: Why yes, I think he is. He’s not in perfect health but I think he’s in good health. And he takes care of himself. He lives sensibly, lives like he’s in training. And he seems to be in better health when he’s working hard. So, as long as he can do it, I think he will just keep working as hard as he can every hour of the day.