Robert Shaw in an interview with Howard Dyck, CBC, 1992
Q: If you could tell me first, what kind of a home was it that you grew up in?
RS: I grew up in a Protestant, evangelical minister’s family in California and substantially, at least Mother’s side of the family made me fourth generation Californian – which is quite rare and quite early because that means, I suppose, the great-grandparents were there possibly before the gold rush even, in the 1850’s. Mother and Grandmother both graduated from San Jose State when it was San Jose Normal School, and Normal Academy. My father came from Duluth, Minnesota – was born there – and he became a minister somewhat late in his years. He was a newspaper man before that, and then ended up in a denomination called, in the United States, the Disciples of Christ, or the Christian Church; very kin to Congregationalism, or Presbyterianism, or Methodism on the sort of Wesleyan side of religion.
Q: So preaching was important?
RS: Yes, preaching was important, though, in terms of my Dad’s life, it was as though he became sort of a Professor of Homiletics at Cal Christian College, which was a denominational school. And Professor, that means "of preaching." He was a lot more interested in pastoral care and counseling than he was in preaching, really. His preaching was rather romantic and very emotional and there was no doubt that he believed quite seriously what he’d been told to believe. And in some instances, in his later years, I actually, because I thought I might go into the ministry myself, I took, during my college years, his church from time to time when he suffered one of his periodic heart attacks or - he died of strokes finally, which would incapacitate him for a few weeks at a time.
Q: So you would stand in for him?
RS: Yeah. Not probably from the same theological pulpit. As a matter of fact, my exit from the ministry was occasioned by the fact that - my exit from my intended ministry - was occasioned by the fact that a young woman in the church became very, very seriously ill, and I was asked by - in one of my substitute Sunday morning services – was asked by the head of the official board of the church to remember this girl in our pastoral prayers. And I found that a little bit difficult because it seemed to me that, if deity was defined as "good," he was already doing what he could - He/She or It was doing what could be done. But I did finally realize that my remarks, which were called, in the mimeographed bulletin of the church, were called in the place in the service that came for pastoral prayer, that the audience, congregation, had bowed its head, so I assumed I was praying at that moment. The surprise was that at the end of the service, as we passed out and the congregation passed out, that a car drew up and a doctor stepped out of the car and said, “The girl is better!” And by the next Sunday I had a long list and I figured, if this was organized religion, I’d better get out right now! And so I found myself studying more and more music as that senior year approached.
Q: Do you remember what some of the themes might have been that you would have preached on?
RS: Yeah, I can remember the title of one sermon which was called “Deeper Wounds.” It began with the fact that the atmosphere of suffering, both of pain and of incompetence to deal with it, were central to the developments of faith. And that if, for humanity, there were wounds which were deep and significant, then it probably also was true of divinity, and divinity was busy out-suffering humanity. And I assumed, as a matter of fact, that the - if it’s not too wrong to call it - what the mythology of Christianity is about: that Jesus’ life is essential to show the sufferingof – the capacity of God for suffering for love for mankind. So that was substantially it.
In a certain sense, come to think of it since some of this conversation is going to be geared into the Missa Solemnis, it’s a little bit like Beethoven feels about peace - here today, and gone tomorrow, and only hope for the best. But, maybe what’s the best is green grass – we can at least expect that.
Q: Now that kind of thinking strikes me as straying fairly far from typical fundamentalist thinking.
RS: Yeah, yeah, I’m sure that’s true. I don’t think I’d have been comfortable in any religious institution other than possibly one which offered courses in comparative religions and philosophy, and that. And so I really had not, insofar as my professional prospects were considered during those years - junior and senior years in college - I was thinking more of university positions and teaching rather than in the ministry itself.
I was assistant pastor of a union church in a little community of Claremont, where Pomona College is situated, which meant that I had youth services to be responsible for. And I had moved those in my mind, and insofar as religious services were concerned, I constructed a musical and meditation service of 30 - 45 minutes each Sunday for college students, between musical sources and poetic and reading sources, but certainly without writing any things of my own. They were really substantially organized moments of community contemplation, rather than exhortation to salvation or whatever the alternatives were.
Q: What was the atmosphere like in your parent’s home, as far as religion was concerned? Was it a ‘freeing’ thing? Was it restrictive?
RS: Not in any sense. The wonderful thing - we were relatively poor. There were poor years, anyway. The first job I had, for instance, when I got out of high school - the family didn’t have enough money – there were five children and we didn’t have enough money to send the children to school as they graduated from high school, and so I stayed out a couple of years to help my sister get started in her - I had one sib that was older than I was
So the family never had a lot of money, but it had wonderful psychological, sociological security. Father was president in most instances in the community - even though the pastorates might last only five to seven years, would be president of the Ministerial Association and would be welcome at all of the service clubs and all the hospitals and recognized. And Mother had a very significant career as a singer. It wasn’t as promotional or as commercial as a contemporary revivalist singer - Beverly Shea or something like that, you know. One occasionally hears magnificent voices on those crusades. Her career was not that at all, but she had seriously studied singing. She studied, for instance, with Roland Hayes who was the first great Negro tenor who made a career as a recitalist. So she had a large repertoire of Negro spirituals and also of Brahms and Schubert songs in addition. So she would give - she was a recitalist, usually nothing like the contemporary recitalist who would appear - not a Pavarotti recitalist in that sense at all, who appears in concert halls that seat three- to five thousand people. Most of her work was done in churches, but she was well known up and down the Pacific coast, through California, Oregon, and Washington.
So, the family had that sort of security. Religion was not really oppressive. For instance, in the summers, if we had a two- or three-week vacation in the high Sierras, we’d affect a little chapel and we’d have a 15-minute chapel every day because we had seven people and we could sing most of the hymns from memory and could sing them in four parts. You learned immediately - almost before you could speak well, you learned to harmonize and carry a tune and carry a part or a tenor part or an alto part, accompanying part. And my dad had also had some experience in conducting choirs. Mother conducted a choir substantially most of the time we were growing up, usually in our own church. But, for instance, all five of us children went to Pomona College and my father graduated there in 1912. He had had a church choir at that time in a little community called Glendora, California. As each of the children got to Pomona College a whole generation later, we all fell heir to that choir, too, and each of us had conducted that choir while we were going through college. Being paid, it was a part of our little income of $5 to $10 a Sunday and conducting the services.
Q: Did you have lessons? Did you take piano lessons?
RS: We all took piano lessons. None of us ever got advanced enough to take organ lessons. Both sisters made a good start of a career, before they started their families, in professional music. Hollis, the older one, won a talent contest on the Pacific coast called the “California Hour” and preceded me to New York by a year and a half to two years, and had a very handsome contract with CBS at that time to do things like “The Bell Telephone Hour," But in addition to that, she was a rather handsome woman and so Jerome Kern had selected her to act the lead in Very Warm for May which meant that “All the Things You Are," which, I think, is one of the great, great American songs of American theater, was written for her and after he’d heard her sing, and such. That became the star hit of that [show].
My younger sister played viola and piano, and she was remarkably musically talented. I have one brother who suffered some incapacities following the Korean War but he has also had church choirs as a conductor and made a living since that war with conducting church choirs and teaching public school music.