Notes from a 1990 Blossom Festival Performance of the "Brahms Requiem" from Sevilla Boyer Carter Morse

I had the opportunity to sing with Robert Shaw when he came to Blossom Music Center to conduct the Brahms Requiem in 1990. I took many notes in my score which I bought since he had autographed it and my notes were so special to me. Most are direct quotes and others rehearsal techniques. He definitely had a uniquely interesting way of making descriptions - even making up words.   

The following is what I wrote down in my score in each movement:

Movement I

       He wanted a “stab of articulation.”

       “Even a forte has within it the possibility of a crescendo.  Let it bloom.”

Movement II      

       To the woodwinds: “Teach me before I leave town how you know where that cut off is.  It's so beautiful. I want to know how to do it.”

       “Be the world's sweetest smallest choir.”

        One half sing text and other half count sing (1& 2& tee& 4&).

Movement III            

       “Give the quarter notes their own itness and isness.”

        “Sound gets too 'musicalagenous' if you're not precise.” 

         “Give the orchestra some 'um' to 'pah pah' to.”     

         “Don't let it smear.  If we make each note beautiful, the line will be beautiful.”

          Referring to the German word, 'wer', “Have the vowel on the beat.”

          At an entrance of just tenors, “Altos help out to give the tenors a little vocal dignity for a while.”  

Movement IV 

        Regarding the orchestra intro, “This is the theme of the piece.  We enter at the inversion of it.”     

       “Rehearse at half voice or down an octave.  Save voice to learn notes.” 

Movement V 

      “darker, eerie, enormously contemplative, mysterious even to us.  Make sure any vibrato that  creeps in is above the pitch.  Concentration-vowels.” 

       “We could stay here all night doing this one movement and go home a believer.  Go home sane.  Isn't that incredible.  How great this piece is!”

       “Save vibrato for expression - not on the initiation of sound.”

       “Begin out of silence, not out of desperation.”

       “Make the phrase expressive, not just the first note. Like a necklace, each note of a phrase must be absolutely perfect.”

       “Diminuendo has a hair of a crescendo in it.”

       “Each note has its 1/10 of 1% of crescendo, so the phrase has a 2% crescendo.”

         Fixing flatting: Go up ½ step then to correct pitch.  He used this exercise regularly during warm ups. 

       “If your vibrato flaps like a barn door in a breeze – no good.  Keep it in control.”

Movement VI  

       “A little bit oongy boongy as if there's an 'n' in every vowel”

         3 ways to travel to notes: depart from, pass through, arrive at. We often ignore pass through.

       “As I get older words come at random, not all at once.”

       “Don't you want to start 'dern' quieter?”

       “Don't you want to make them wonder if the chorus is singing?”

       “When singing with orchestra, we are not allowed real dynamics.  It's more color - never less than mp.”

       “Keep feeding it, then relax it.”

       “Since we are background, Sforzando quality on every note, a march like quality, deathlike”

       “Use the great elasticity of a large choir.”

       “Composer puts text into a language beyond verbal expressivity. We get the composer's inexpressible ideas of text through the music not the text.”

        Referring to one single syllable - “It's an it of its own.”

        Brahms' virtuosity was so great he may not have even been conscious of himself.”

       “I don't bring you in, the music brings you in.  Come in because it's your time.”

       “Every note should carry the seed of its duration at the moment of attack.”

       “Quiet singing is key to full volume success.  It can grow if it starts right at p.”

Movement VII

       “The last 20 minutes is an upbeat to what's to come.”

       “This is the first movement upside down and backwards.”

       “Each note has to blossom and bloom.”

        Quoting Pablo Casals “We don't play p and f. We play within p and f.”

       “To keep an A-440, think A-441, 442 etc.”

       “If you hold it for 3 seconds, you are obligated to improve its pitch.”

       “Sing an 'n' to soften the 'd' sound and a 't' to make it more distinct.”

       “Brahms can teach voice.”


On a bad blend: “Be sure we don't crescendo outside the community envelope.” I also remember him referring to keeping within the “sleeve of the sound.”

His way of explaining dulcissimo: “Not putting the baby to sleep with a hammer.”

Improving pitch: “That's not quite high enough.  That's a tough note.  You'll need to make it a few vibrations higher.”

“The emotional qualities come from the music – the meaning's in the music, not the words.  It's between you and your Maker.”

On the great ending: “The dove doesn't descend until the play pen's cleaned up.  Then the Holy Spirit comes in.”

His comment on the last page: “It's a touching occasion folks – a moving event.”


Additional general quotes during our brief rehearsal time of the Brahms Requiem:

    “A 75 minute piece in 85 minutes of rehearsal.”

    “It's remarkable what you've done with such great passion.  Thank you very much for allowing me to participate in it.”

    “It's all fundamentals.  We've got to make the fundamentals be full of the Spirit.”

    “You just put your hand on the chocolate syrup and let it stay there.   


What I truly appreciated as a singer was the way he communicated so clearly. The first work I sang with him was Vivaldi's Gloria.  Having done it before, the notes were not new.  What was new was the feeling that I understood what he wanted for every half beat.  I wish I had kept that score.

I kept a number of the weekly US mail communications for Cleveland Orchestra Chorus from 1965-1967.  Some are his “Dear People” letters which also demonstrated his humor and wonderful choice of words to get his points across.  I also have several Carnegie Hall workshop videos of him conducting rehearsals for Beethoven's Missa Solemnis (1992), Britten's War Requiem (1994), as well as Brahms' Requiem (1991).

Sevilla Boyer Carter Morse