Robert Shaw in an interview with Howard Dyck, CBC, 1992

RS:   Since it [Glee club repertoire] was not a sort of a home to me aesthetically/intellectually, I then started - after that had been going on about a year and a half - I started what you know as Collegiate Chorale.  And that was a young - rather than an older people’s chorus which we felt, at that time, for instance, the New York Oratorio Society might qualify as – had that long tradition.  It was a chorus of 200 to 220 would-be young singers who were gonna sing serious music rather than commercial entertainment music.  It was called Collegiate Chorale because it was started in cooperation with the Marble Collegiate Church. That was Normal Vincent Peale’s Church.  And one of our members of our choir, a man by the name of Gordon Burger, who became a fine conductor on the west coast and had conducted to but who was for us in the Waring outfit, was a baritone soloist, had started a youth choir in that church.  And, if you recall at that time, there was a piece going around which was called “Ballad for Americans." This was a piece by La Touche and Robinson [John LaTouche and Earl Robinson who did an American patriotic cantata through the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program during the Depression].

Paul Robeson had done the first performance and it was a sort of, “I am an American” piece; “What am I? I’m black, I’m white, I’m yellow, I’m green, but this is my land and I love it” sort of a piece.  I did one of the first performances of the piece because I’d conducted Paul Robeson and the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium concert.  Gordon wanted to do that piece and he’d rehearsed it with this group at the church, but he wanted also to do the baritone solo, and so he asked me if I’d conduct it. And I did so at a special sort of convention performance in Albany, New York.  

And I said, well Gordon, what about – I’d wanted to - one of my projects in college which came out of that Sunday Service for young people that I’d spoken to you about - I was dissatisfied not only with some of the theological materials in Evangelical Christianity but I was also very dissatisfied with their forms of public worship.  And I thought they weren’t creating any new music, and they weren’t commissioning new scores.  So I thought maybe I could – I had the foolish idea that if I could find a church and build a great choir that was so good that nobody could afford to look down their nose at it, somebody might allow this sort of a choir to put on a series of Sunday evening services, for which  I’d already contacted people like William Schuman and Aaron Copeland and Igor Stravinsky - would write the music for.  And then other people would write the poetry for it. Because I even in those days I guess had the hunch that not all the Scriptures had been written and there was still some writing to be done.  

RS:  And so, we started in Marble Collegiate Church.

I think I can tell the complete story now because it had some delicate and slightly unfortunate aspects but they’ve been healed by correspondence through the last several months. There was no doubt that this was a reasonably obstreperous group.  It was young New York, and I was young, and the great thing about it, both humanly and artistically, was that it had a base very close, through the kindness of a man by the name of Peter Wilhousky, who was head of choral music at New York Public Schools, and who had a remarkable All-City High School New York Choir.  With his Russian background in Russian liturgical music, he had a choir that was as mature in its sound in high school ages as almost as the Mennonite Choirs of Canada, and it was an extraordinary choir.

Anyway, they opened their rolls of the graduating classes of the last five or six years to us, and we contacted, by mail, all the people who were left of those graduating choirs in New York City and would they be interested in doing it? We also got several hundreds of people applying because of my association with Fred Waring, because people thought they could manipulate themselves into a professional situation by this means.  

We began rehearsing in the Marble Collegiate Church.  We had two hundred twenty members that we’d chosen out of, I suppose, a thousand applicants.  And we had at the time - because I had been working with male voices, we had -  out of the 220 members, we had 120 men, and we had 70 basses, 30 of which had low C’s because we were thinking of that fat, rich sound that you could get with a male glee club in a popular song and weren’t thinking really of the necessities of good Bach Baroque practices.  

And so, we began with that choir in the church and it was a noisy group, I suppose.  And we didn’t rehearse obviously in the church sanctuary.  We rehearsed in its entertainment halls or its public eating places or whatever. I think it struck some members of the consistory as being a little bit dangerous to harbor this group out of the general fleshpots of New York and give them a home in their church.  And anyway, I was called in by Dr. Peale into his office and he informed me that we could continue to rehearse there if we limited our membership to WASPs and 50% of those WASPs had to be members of the church.  And so we moved out with great pride, a little too much pride obviously, and found home in other churches, but kept the name. And the name had already become a little bit popular.

The healing part is that I got, within the last two or three years, a couple summers ago, I got a letter – a complete surprise – from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale that said, “Dear Mr. Shaw:  I’m getting along in years and I made a mistake. I have followed your career and I am embarrassed about it and I just simply want to say I’m sorry. I made a mistake in those years.”   And I wrote him a letter that said, “It can’t be all your fault. No doubt we were noisy and a little difficult for a church to take that hadn’t grown up in their family and we just all of the sudden put into their Institution." And so I got a letter back from one of their associates that said, “Dear Mr. Shaw: Dr. Peale would like to write a sermon about this and publish it in his Guideposts and can we publish your letter?” and I said ‘Why, sure."

And so it came out.  The sermon was, “It’s Never Too Late."  And then we got a letter from Reader’s Digest that says, “Can we publish the thing that came out in Guideposts called “It’s Never Too Late."  So, the thing – anyway, it ended very nicely, 50 years too late, but it ended very nicely. So, those lines are clean. And even this last time I conducted the New York Philharmonic this past season, their Principal Oboist - who is a dear friend of mine because we’d developed - his first job was in the Atlanta Symphony – took me to introduce me - he’s been going to that church, unbeknownst to any of the rest of us.  And he introduced me the their choir director, and they would like to have now a "service of healing" where we all get together and bring that choir together and let them do their service in the church.  One of these days it may happen. And so it’s kind of nice that it all worked out that way.

But, that choir then because of the way- substantially because of the war years and because of Fred’s involvement in entertainment – that choir became very - New York became very conscious of that choir overnight because we did so many bond shows.  We’d do bond shows at Madison Square Garden, at the polo grounds, and at Yankee Stadium. There would be these big celebrities making their appearances and selling bonds and stuff.  And our people got the privilege of walking behind and talking to every major name in show business from Hollywood in those years, or the New York theater. So this was extraordinary sport for young people who had never met a prize fighter in their lives.  But it became – obviously that kind of thing worked in the newspapers and if somebody like Danny Kaye says "You gotta hear this chorus,” a lot of people listen, a lot of people hear that.

And also at that time the broadcasting companies all had their symphony orchestras. There was not only an NBC Symphony with Toscanini, but there was an ABC Symphony and there was a CBS Symphony. And so we began to get invited to appear with them to do the major choral repertoire.  And it became obvious - one of the things that became apparent was that I’d better learn my craft! And better learn repertoire, too.  We were also doing out own concerts in Carnegie Hall.

Q:  And what kind of repertoire would you be doing in your own concerts?

RS:  We would be doing a Fauré Requiem and a Bach Magnificat, or something like that, with orchestra.  I think, by that time, I had probably stepped in front of a couple of orchestras.  There was an instrumental society of New York which trained young musicians for symphony playing, called the National Orchestral Society and conducted by Léon Barzin, who is still alive, and was the principal violist in one of Toscanini’s orchestras.  It was the New York Philharmonic at that time and he was a violist, but he became a trainer of conductors and very serious. He is in his 90s now, but he is living in France in Paris.

Your question was about the repertoire. I think probably that may have been one of the first orchestras because he asked me if I would then - we were both rehearsing in, what was it called, the New York Center for Music and Drama which was the old Masonic Temple which was between 56th and 57th, just out the back door of Carnegie Hall, and subsequently became the home of Lenny Bernstein’s New York Symphony before he went with the New York Philharmonic.

Part of it was - it almost came out of WPA*, that is to say, as theater came out. The city and state were trying to make a home for arts and for would-be professional performers because they were starving like the painters and the architects for the post offices were starving.  And together with the war years this thing sort of bloomed.

* A New Deal program for the unemployed established during the Depression which ended during WWII.

When we would appear with NBC Symphony or ABC Symphony, frequently you wouldn’t take the whole group.  You’d take your 30 or 40 best and you’d call them the NBC Chorale or the CBS Chorale, or the RCA Victor Chorale, if it was going to be a recording.  It was not until several years later, when we were asked to go on tour and we couldn’t put our name – put one of their names on the touring group - that it became the Robert Shaw Chorale.  But it was substantially the same group of persons, which means it was never the same group of people, because it was always who was available that week, to do that particular rehearsal, and that particular performance.  It was an ad hoc group put together for a tour of as much as - our first tour was twenty weeks in duration in which we gave 13 concerts every 14 days, so a 130 concert tour.  By bus, traveling as much – like the old dance bands used to.

Q:  And what year would that have been now?

RS:  Oh, I think the tour would be ’48 to ’49.  You may know better than I do. I guess some of those dates should be checked because this is a part of the thing I don’t remember.  

Prior to that, I had had the chance to conduct.  The other orchestras I had conducted were the Boston Symphony because I’d been asked to come up and do the choral work at Tanglewood by Koussevitzky, and the NBC Symphony because Toscanini had thrown a couple of musical bones my way because he’d assumed that I knew an awful lot more than I did because the product was good, and there were certain things I had not experienced.

Substantially, the first orchestras I stepped in front of were the Boston and the NBC Symphonies which were highly professional orchestras. They are places to learn a lot very quickly, if they don’t chase you off the podium. And that never quite happened.

I remember Heifetz, the cellist, the Principal Cellist of the NBC Symphony, coming up after my first rehearsal when I thought I’d done a terrible job. He patted me on the shoulder and said “You won’t get it, son, but it’s nice to see somebody try”.

Q:  So they were on your side.

RS:  l didn’t pull any ranks other than ignorance, which is a good rank if you can use it well. (Laughs)

RS:  The repertoire - I would not say ‘a matter of compromise’ but it certainly was a matter of balance. That is to say, RCA Victor would allow us to make a serious major work if we could balance that with something that they felt had better sales prospects.  And so we recorded in those days, I guess, we recorded the B Minor Mass of Bach, and we recorded  Brahms Requiem, the Mozart Requiem, and this is in addition to large works which we did with Toscanini.  And we did - I said Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, we didn’t do a Mass in C, we did a Faure Requiem. We did, I suppose, a half dozen of the major works.

RS:  Yes, Vivaldi Gloria.

St. John Passion  we recorded in English in a translation which I had made, but with significant soloists, Mack Harrell among them, as Jesus. And then we did a number of things varying possibly from folk songs and black spirituals which were always a favorite of mine up through commercial Broadway show tunes, most of those which were orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett, who also orchestrated the original shows in many respects. And then Stephen Foster songs.  We did Bach cantatas – Christ lag in Todes Banden, Bach motets, a few contemporary pieces like Schoenberg’s “Friede auf Erden” would follow - and the Poulenc Mass - which would follow our programs on tour. We would come back and record those things which we sort of polished up through multiple performances through the United States tours.

But they were matters of compromise and balance, to balance some of the popular and more saleable materials. but still somewhat in a serious vein - American hymns, early American hymns, for instance, we made a couple volumes of those.

I have a shelf at home.  I don’t have all the records we made, but I suppose I have pretty close to a hundred. Those would include, however, the choral portions which we sang for Carmen recordings and recordings with Toscanini and other conductors of operatic works.

Q:  You’ve done the arrangements of folk songs that you did jointly with Alice Parker (click here for biographical information) for these recordings?

RS:  Alice and I began those recordings really just following World War II, ‘46, ‘47, ’48; where I was - Alice’s family had a home in Massachusetts in a large plot of government land that they’d had.  And I met her.  She became a student at Tanglewood and then became - I introduced her to Julius Hereford and she became sort of a student of his, because her interest was conducting as well as arranging in those times, and also composition.  And we would in the years that I served as choral director at Tanglewood and we would also spend then the next couple weeks on her family’s ranch, pulling together some of the things for which she had done a good deal of library sort of research. Then we’d pull these arrangements together.

Alice had an extraordinary skill of polyphonic arranging of familiar material, with canons and inversions of canons and augmentations and diminutions, which added to their vocal interest without seemingly sacrificing their integrity as congregational music. And so these were delightful and wonderful years.  She must have done almost 8-10 albums of those things with us. I think the last one was one which you spoke of yesterday, which was the Irish folk songs.

Q:  But with all these wonderful projects, the recordings, the tours that you did, nevertheless the reality is that the Robert Shaw Chorale ceased to exist sometime during the ‘60’s.

RS:  I would think it’s about ’66. That’s my guess, because I went to Atlanta at that time, though we had done a farewell tour. It was either ’65 or ’66.  We’d done an all twentieth century program. It was a serious venture chorally and we were able to pull it off. But I think by that time it had become so expensive to tour group attractions that it was economically just simply not feasible.

It was also true that at that time my attention was going more and more towards the orchestral field. And obviously I went to Cleveland to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could. And with the invitation to go to Atlanta and build this orchestra, there was just no way I could carry on another institution. 

So long as I was working, it had been clear to Mr. Szell and the directors of the Cleveland Orchestra that when I went, though, I would supervise all choral activity and would indeed conduct all choral activity. Mr. Szell was enormously kind and generous. He said, “Robert, so long as you’re here, I won’t touch one of these orchestral symphonic choral works.” And he did not, until the very last year, when I asked him – because I wanted so much to hear him, because he was such a great Beethoven expert and enthusiast - I asked him if he would do a Missa Solemnis so I could hear what he would like to do with it. And he said he would, so I prepared the chorus for him.

And I guess, in one other instance, when we got involved in a series, as Toscanini has been, of festival, and a sort of benefit performance of the Verdi Requiem, he used our Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. But other than that, he was generous enough to let me do all of that repertoire, and it was a wonderful, wonderful time.

RS:  He had gathered together a group of the finest solo musicians in the United States, and sort of in the history of the United States. And somehow he’d managed – there were a half-dozen major orchestras at that time and Cleveland was beginning to be of that status but the half dozen eventually get locked into their personnel situation so they have but one or two new positions to offer to people each year. There were young musicians coming out of schools and universities and conservatories of the United States and no place for them to go, really. This is also the major reason that the Atlanta Symphony was able to progress and build so rapidly.

And the Cleveland Orchestra was no place near that stage that Atlanta was, but still Mr. Szell could find room for young solo artists like oboists and flutists and woodwind soloists that had had a few years working in major orchestras but were enormously gifted as solo instrumentalists.

Q:  I want to get back to...

RS:  Why we left the Chorale. I can remember that far back. So those are the reasons I went to Cleveland – see, I’d never been – I never sought music in the first place. So every place I went was vastly beyond me. And I’ve been playing 75 years of catch up. I hadn’t intended to go into music and it became obvious when I got this job with Fred Waring - he invited me to New York to do this job, that I could form this glee club. He was very happy with it but there was no proof that I could conduct the darn thing.  And once I’d started the collegiate chorale and was going to do what I soon learned were very important works, I had to study them some place. 

So I got in touch with Julius Hereford, and once I began conducting with orchestra, and Szell hired me, after he came to me and asked me if I would come, after he had seen me conduct – it wasn’t a Bach. It happened to be Bartok.  I was doing Bartok violin concerti and things like that and somehow with just enough brass, I suppose, to think I could learn them.

Q:  Was this in San Diego?

RS:  No, no. This was in New York. I’d already done San Diego by then. 

I was invited to San Diego to work with that orchestra because my family, my parents’ family – my father died in San Diego, as a minister of a church, and the younger children had grown up there and by that time I had sort of a national name, national recognition, out of the Robert Shaw Chorale, and they thought I might be able to bring a little national class to it.

It was only a summer series – of ten concerts. The orchestra was not a year-round event at all.  It was a summer festival. And I could also bring at the time a big chorus to do the final concert of the season. I began with very – they were young musicians, out there, and I learned a good deal from them.

But I learned most of my craft – in so far as it is a craft – from watching Mr. Szell, and Louis Lane, and from members of the Cleveland Orchestra, and then, subsequently, members of the Atlanta Symphony. 

But I obviously had to give up the Robert Shaw Chorale, which as a touring institution would have collapsed anyway. I mean, I don’t think there was any way economically that could have gone on.