CHORAL TRADITIONS IN SHAW’S ERA (The audio for this section has not been found.)
[Regarding] the two great choral traditions in the United States, I spoke of the school traditions, of Harvard and Yale and how they slightly differed by the emphases of these two men. There were two great performing traditions in the United States. Those were repertoire things.
The performing traditions were first, F. Melius Christiansen and that’s the northern Lutheran Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas. And that tradition was a vocal tradition which meant that you sang substantially without any vibrato at all, and with a, if you describe it any way, a slightly hootie tone, and you try to wipe out all individuality.
Completely opposite of that was John Finley Williamson which subsequently became the Westminster Choir College tradition, because he founded that Westminster Choir College tradition, having moved from Dayton, OH to Princeton, NJ. Theirs was based on a soloistic vocal technique which was patterned substantially after Metropolitan Opera soloists that Dr. Williamson respected. He wanted a choir which was not uniformly blended and homogenous but in which the sopranos sounded one way, the altos sounded another, the tenors sounded all like Gigli or Caruso, whoever the bird of the month was, and the basses sounded like whoever the star of that month was.
I can remember one time - Howard Swan is one of the great leaders of choral music in the United States because of his influence on public school music and university music - Williamson didn’t have much of a conducting technique. He had more of a vocal technique but he called it the ‘Locked Spine” method. You sort of stood up in a certain way and you locked your spine and you put a hand out in front of you and you didn’t move your hand. You sort of looked at it and they looked at it, too. And you moved it slightly back and forth and everybody was transfixed and this allowed for great subtlety of inspiration.
Eventually Williamson gave up the “Locked Spine. ” Howard said, “My God, Robert! I’ve locked every spine on the Pacific coast! And now he’s given it up and I gotta begin unlocking all these spines again.”
So, the two great traditions were excessive vibrato, what I’d call almost, and certainly F. Melius Christiansen would have called them almost excessive vibrato. Christiansen had two wonderful sons by the names of Paul and Olaf who also followed through with the St. Olaf Choir and the Lutheran Choirs in northern Minnesota. So that tradition persists until this day and it’s a noble tradition. And so is Williamson’s. Williamson trained organists and choir directors, and he built a curriculum that would allow them to build a choir out of pretty modest resources. It helped church music in the United Stated considerably but they were vastly different. I think, in certain respects, probably from my study through Julius Herford, which about whom we haven’t talked and will eventually I am sure, I figured that first, singing was a natural function and shouldn’t sound too artificial and certain voices were pushed beyond their capacity – most voices were – because the payoff was coming on the voices that could sing over a 100-piece symphony orchestra. They got the big money. And there are only so many Olympic athletes born each decade, and there are only so many Pavarotti’s born. Not everybody has this capacity and you’re liable to rupture a disk before you get there.
Ours was built upon, again largely out of Julius’ influence, that the repertoire determines the quality of voice that suits the repertoire. Brahms is a different tone from Beethoven, though not vastly different, but it certainly is a different tone from Debussy, and it’s a vastly different tone from Vittoria or Palestrina – all of them are. The same tone that suits the Verdi Requiem will not suit Palestrina, even though both of them are Italians.
I think probably the choruses that Toscanini heard with the greatest vocal vigor lacked the fundamental disciplines of pitch and time. And those that he’d heard that had the disciplines of pitch and time lacked certain vocal vigor. Somehow I think we hit it in between and got a little of both, I hope a lot of both because that is certainly what we were after.
In addition to one of the things that happened to the Fred Waring Glee Club, to me, is that I had the best vocal talent in the United States in any chorus for my first glee club. If you couldn’t learn from that sound what was right, you had to be pretty stupid. Undoubtedly I got used to a… If you have those voices to choose from and select and aren’t ruined by having preconceptions and are willing to learn about what goes together and what is beautiful and what also has strength and vigor and what has sensitivity, then I got used to a very beautiful sound and, through the family, too, through Mother. I still think…I went back after I’d been in New York for twenty years and she hadn’t passed away yet and I heard her sing The Ninety and Nine, old evangelical literature, but it was still, with a slow shake. It wasn’t Flagstad but it was almost as good.
But it was a great natural voice. I got used to hearing that sound in my youth.