FORMATION OF THE ROBERT SHAW CHORALE
GP: We’ve talked about 3 people who have really influenced your early career. Now let’s get to the - the book describes it as the white hot years, the formation of the Robert Shaw Chorale where you did Easter music, sacred music, and especially at this time of the season, the Christmas songs. Take us back. We were talking before we went on the air here about some of these albums that came out. What was the actual first album where you put together the Robert Shaw Chorale and did the Christmas music? Was that back in the middle 40’s right after WWII? Or before the war?
RS: They began during the war, Greg. Because see, we formed the Collegiate Chorale in about 1940, I guess. I went with Fred in ’38, the end of ’38, and the Collegiate Chorale was formed substantially to do religious music, because, I had come from a long line of ministers and my interest was in that rather than entertainment music. And I found myself employed by Fred and centered almost completely in popular music or doing shows for Billy Rose and Oscar Hammerstein and so on. And so I formed this sort of.
I was also interested in developing what I thought might be a contemporary liturgy for the Protestant Church, generally Protestant Church around the United States. And so I was in contact with composers like Bill Schumann and Aaron Copeland and Sam Barber to see if they would write contemporary religious music. So anyway, the Collegiate Chorale was formed for this purpose But it was a - right away, it was an extraordinarily disciplined and uniquely sounding group. We had 200 voices, mixed voices, and a bass section of maybe 50 or 60 of which maybe 15 to 20 had low c’s. And nobody had ever heard a choir like this before in New York.
My point is only that Immediately, the radio networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - picked us up and wanted us to do Christmas shows for them or wanted us to do other festival shows for them. And Toscanini wanted us to do broadcasts with him. And so originally, what became known as the Robert Shaw Chorale, was known as the NBC Chorale or the RCA Victor Chorale or the CBS Chorale or the ABC Chorale. And it would be formed of sort of - we were all volunteers and amateurs at that time - but those choirs, because the studios were small and you didn’t need gigantic sounds anyway, would be formed of 30 to 40 voices, and they’d be the top of our people, and they would get paid a little bit of money. There was no union then substantially at that time.
And when, after two or three years of that, when somebody got the idea of putting this show on the road, putting the choir in touring concerts, it couldn’t be called either ABC or CBS or RCA. It had to be called by some other name, and so, simply as the Fred Waring Pennsylvanians were there, my name was tacked on to it. And that was, I suppose it about 1944 or 45. No, it was even after that. It was 46 before it became known as the Robert Shaw Chorale. In the meantime, there had been, I suppose a half dozen recordings made already, for instance, that first Christmas Carol album. I can remember that being recorded in what was the Lotus Club, a sort of literary private men’s club - literary and musical and sort of arts, artsy-craftsy thingon 57th street - andthey had a small [studio] on the 5thor 6th floor. And RCA victor would move their equipment into that room because it had a nice warm acoustic and. But we made our first records on - recorded on bees wax so that if you had, if we broke down in the middle, somebody made a mistake, we’d have to stop. Then we’d have to shave the head and begin all over again.
GP: The amazing part of all of your recordings with the Robert Shaw Chorale as you mentioned before is that you started out with many voices and a lot of choruses even today have hundreds - 200 to 300 voices, like the Morman Tabernacle. To get to the point that your voices, you trimmed your chorus, your basic chorus, as I recall, had about 30 voices.
RS: Substantially that’s right.
GP: And It sounded like 100 or more and that was the key I guess to your magic that made people say, “How does he do it with 30 voices?” And it a lot of it was a cappella.
RS: Well, it wasn’t altogether easy. I suppose we chose- the instrument became 30 voices because it was maneuverable and usable, and you could take - and 30 people would fit into a bus in those days. And so, you took - for instance, it was a big step when we finally began adding instruments to the Chorale and toured with it. It was an enormous step when we found that we needed 15 or 16 instruments which took us out of the one bus category to the two bus category. This was economically feasible. And at that time also we were singing in rough gymnasiums at the University of Kentucky where they seat something like 15 or 16 thousand people, and we were working without amplification. So our - the theory was all the time, that you picked the greatest voices you could find, the finest voice that you could get. And it was tough times economically so people were graduating from conservatories. The first Fred Waring Glee Club was - the men were paid 25 dollars a week. And in that glee club there were people - I suppose over half of them had master’s degrees and there were at least three or four that had doctorate degrees in music. This is a lifetime of education for most people – it’s 15 to 20 years beyond grammar school.
GP: Did you audition the eventual Robert Shaw Chorale that you really toured with or were these people still the amateurs that you started with?
RS: Oh no, no These were auditioned and the first of them came out of the sort of cream of the so called Collegiate Chorale and gradually - and even then, some of the people in the Fred Waring Glee Club doubled back and forth; though they couldn’t go on tour with usbecause then they were staying in New York by that time and doing shows with Fred. But they were all professional. Most of them were just post-conservatory status, most of them in their 20s, a few in their 30’s. And so anyway, they were large voices. And obviously the problem was to get them geared together so they all pulled in the same direction at the same time And I don’t think there’s anything. There’s no magic about it. Ideas about blend - great choral singing depends upon blending individual voices together, but there’s no magic or no secrets. You have to have them sing the same pitch, with the same vowel, at the same dynamic level, at the same time.
GP: Fred Waring had a technique about the vowel, the phonetics. Did you use that in your technique?
RS: Yes. As a matter of fact, I wrote that first book, but he - it was his idea. There was another guy who was also working that direction. It’s simply basic phonetic speech in singing, and John Findley Williamson of the Westminster Choir School, was already doing that in a more classical type of music at the time. And that’s where I first heard of it. The year I graduated from college or my senior year in college, John Findley Williamson came to the west coast and had a summer session for choral conductors, and that’s where I first heard of the sort of phonetic speech of singing. But Fred’s was called Tone Syllables, and that was his invention. And then I just simply wrote - after I had been a couple of years with him - I wrote the first sort of handbook on Tone Syllables, but it was basically his concept.