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

Q:  Now lets get talking about the Robert Shaw Chorale.  That’s the name that made you famous, of course.  Certainly, that is how I first got to hear about you; hearing The Robert Shaw Chorale when I was a kid.  You’ve told us a little bit about the beginnings of it. But I want to know about what those experiences were like; tell me about the feeling in the country. Was the United States ready for a Robert Shaw Chorale, a professional choir traveling throughout the country and doing concerts?

RS:  That was a time that, when the concert life in the country, through its two great concert organizations, monopolies almost, Columbia Artists and NCAC Artists, because one had the civic concerts and the other had the community concerts, and together they controlled 500 to 700 concert sites in the United States and helped those communities build their budgets, then sold them their own artists and so on.

That was a time that the concert life in the United States moved from recital artists to group artists.  And it went into dance companies and it went into small opera companies like Goldovsky’s small opera company and it went into chamber orchestras touring and little, small orchestras like the Virtuosi de Roma twelve piece orchestra.  The point is that we’ve undoubtedly reaped that change of desire on the part of…  Who knows whether the audience asks for that or whether it’s given to them and so they take it.  I think it’s both things happen. So we gained by that new appetite. 

The only thing, in later years, I’ve felt and sort of evaluated the experience. The only thing that we were able to do, and we were very successful in the concert field, and our concert fees were anywhere from three- to five-hundred dollars up to two-thousand in those days depending on the size of the hall and how far we had to travel by bus and what else was available.

I thought we were able to set standards.  Few people had heard a choir of this professional…professionality or virtuoso capacities even in technique.  The other thing we did, in time, was extend repertoire remarkably.  Though our first programs began, as did any sort of university, with a group of 16th Century music and a group of contemporary serious music and then the last half is folk songs or spirituals, or choruses from Broadway shows or from "Porgy and Bess."

Very early we began to do major works with instrumental accompaniment. And our orchestral forces became not quite as large, but almost as large. For instance, when we toured with the B minor Mass we would have 27 instruments and 34 voices. We were the first group to tour with a Mozart Requiem a B minor Mass, a St. John Passion, a Handel Messiah, a Fauré Requiem – the standard sort of fare that was capable of being done by Baroque forces. Mozart was reaching a little bit, but I am sure it had been done by fewer voices and fewer instruments. We would tour with these works.

Q:  One detail, as far as the tours are concerned and the repertoire; you mentioned the St. John Passion. I assume you would have done the Mozart Requiem, the B minor Mass, in Latin. Did you sing St. John in German?

RS:  No. Did the St. John in English with my own translation.  For two reasons: narrative works are dramatic works, I think, are important to have in the language of the people who are listening. The second thing is that, with the biblical tradition of King James, you’ve got a noble, noble tongue. It’s as great as Shakespearian language.  If you can work that in, you haven’t cheapened the product at all, since those are narrative works that tell that story. You’ve got so much Biblical prose to move back against that you can get good translations of those.

Q:  A comment I’d like you to make with regard to a practical matter with regards to the tours that you did with the Robert Shaw Chorale. Obviously you would be traveling from one small town, or perhaps larger city, to another and you’d be performing in a different hall every night with varying acoustics - most of them bad I would assume. How did you deal with that?

RS:  I went ahead of the group, most of the time, with one other person, and I tore down every piece of cloth in the stage area, and I built - in the early years - we built risers out of orange crates and bleachers.  I tried to make, as near as I could, a bare-walled stage.  I suppose I’ve been in more gymnasia and high school auditoria than any artist in American history. Our group of artists.  We tried to create, as much as we could, a decent amount of reverberation because choral music in its great periods has been written for religious services and most of those services have taken place in either cathedrals or churches of a size and of a certain amount of masonry and such to allow tone to spin and to last and to become, really, a part of the emotional experience.  And so we tried to do that.

It wasn’t always easy. I developed a series of little exercises. In those days we weren’t as restricted by union rules and by ten- to fifteen minute rehearsals onstage - never more than that - frequently less than that. Although in Chicago or Philadelphia, and those, we would occasionally have a full hour of rehearsal with instruments as well as voices. By a few little devices of placing voices on stage and having them turn around and sing unison and, as you may have seen us in our rehearsal techniques, those things can give a choir a sound of a stage within seconds.  And they get comfortable. Remember also that those thirty voices, because we traveled almost always with a choir of 30 - and instrumental forces of from 12 to 26 or 27 - those voices were all pro voices and all pro solo voices.  And each of them had a space, where it was possible, they were standing ten feet apart and rows were as deep as 4 to 6 feet deep so that each one occupied 40 square feet of space by himself. I thought that under those circumstances one could hear themselves and other people better than if they were huddled together with their shoulders hunched, and so on.

They also then, in those circumstances, made twice as much sound because they were not inhibited by trying to blend and diminish their sound against that of anybody else’s. And if the rehearsal procedures had been right, they were also standing in quartets, not in sections, so that they were hearing the entire product.  They were responsible for the entire product as though they were solo voices singing the piece with just four parts as a solo quartet.  

A few simple unison exercises on a stage would…you could never do a great concert on a bad stage but you could do a good concert on a bad stage with getting used to it before you stepped out into your first sound.   I also found, among other things, that if the stage is real bad you don’t sing louder, you sing more quietly - rules of thumb that any natural carpenter would figure out before he sawed off all of his fingers.

Q:  It just occurs to me now as I am listening to you talking about this, you would have been doing tours with the Robert Shaw Chorale during, well, starting in the ‘40s and the’50s…the ‘50s was an unfortunate chapter in American history. That was the McCarthy Era.  Did you encounter (fixing mic) - - Did that kind of xenophobia that was so typical of a lot of people at that time - did you have to deal with that in any way with the touring that you did in terms of repertoire or where you were allowed to sing, or whatever?

RS:  The companion piece to that would be the racial tensions in the United States during those years.  We were, very frankly, the first group that mixed blacks and whites on stages in the South.  There were a lot of mayors that didn’t know we integrated their hotels, too. (chuckling)  We’ve had, in the South, capital cities, we’ve had the front three rows, which are the expensive rows, get up and leave as our group walked on stage. But we never cancelled a concert or we never changed personnel.  In some respects we led that crusade in the Arts. It wasn’t a real serious thing.

Who was it that had the Soldier’s Chorus at the time…a wonderful guy…I’ll tell you in a second…it was a black soldiers chorus…You gotta save me on this and not let me fall about his name because he’s a good friend of mine…

But we always talked about switching personnel or mixing them completely.

We didn’t really have any major, major problems that way.  We lived in the 3rd to 4th rate hotels or in YMCAs.  The first year that we went out our singers were paid no more than $75 a week and they had to pay all of their hotels and their meals out of that $75 a week.  But, at the same time, a dollar could buy a good deal more in those days. The first job I was working 72 hours a week in steel mills and in bakery and I was making $6.12 a week. We fed a family of seven people their breakfast on $6.12 a week.  That was important for one member of the family to give breakfast to the rest of them.  But you had to work 72 hours to get it. They were night hours. I was wrapping bread in a bakery.

Those financial comparisons are always misleading.

Q:  The $75 weekly that would be paid to the singers, would that come out of concert fees?

RS:  Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And the concert, it’s possible, probable…I’m trying to think…I wasn’t living…I’ve lived always cheaply because that’s my nature. We didn’t have money as a family so it doesn’t bother me any.  The clothes I wear…you can tell by my rehearsal clothes; I wear the same pair of blue pants and the same blue shirts and I buy them by the dozen and you pay all of $9 or $10 for a pair of pants. I just live in work clothes.

I don’t think the tours ever made money for anybody but Columbia Concerts or the sponsoring organization. They would take their percentage.  We always managed substantially to break even. More importantly, it helped our record sales. So record sales, in a sense, kept us going. And would occasionally make enough money for us to put on a New York series of 3 or 4 concerts during the year which would cost us $7,000 or $8,000 per concert (normally they’d cost you $25,000 to $30,000 now) but we could put on a series and hire an orchestra, for within $7,000 or $8,000 and pay everybody in the organization, too. 

I don’t know what it would cost now but I bet its true that, if you put that group together now and toured it, it would cost $500 to $600 per week per person, at least. And you might have to pay per diems and hotel rooms over that.

A part of the good fortune was being born in poor times.

Q:  So the choir toured, it recorded…for RCA…

RS:  Yes. But understand again that the people who were hired to go on tour…there was a core of people, you may have heard of names like Florence Kopleff, and Thomas Pyle, and Clayton Krehbiel, and those early soloists who were on the Robert Shaw Chorale records; there was a core of 15% to 20% that might go out 2 to 3 to 4 years in a row.  But it was substantially 65% to 70% new each year, the group was.  And, if you were recording, you might have 2 guys from the Fred Waring Glee Club in the early days, or 3 guys, who could make…you’d have 1 rehearsal and then the recording session. Or, you’d have no rehearsals and the recording session you’d just show up and read the music, if you were doing something that was simple. The recording choruses always were a little better equipped person by person vocally, in reading skills particularly.  The advantage you might gain with a touring chorus is that you could afford to take a guy with a young, beautiful voice who couldn’t read a note because you had 25 hours to teach him the piece and he’d be more valuable to you in the second week than the guy who could read but his voice gave out.  In Russia we toured with 2 ½ to 3 programs. When we toured in the United States it was usually just the same…”you take it or you don’t buy it but this is gonna be the program”.  And some people wouldn’t take a thing like the B-minor Mass.

The thing that shocked Columbia Concerts in those days was that Fred Shang, who was President of Columbia Concerts, said “Robert, I believe you.” I’d say “Freddy, if you announce this it’s just gonna shake the industry” and he says “We won’t be able to sell one. But” he says, “I’ll try.” So he announces it and the thing sold by phone, he didn’t even have to send anybody out to sell the people on it, within 5 or 6 days. For the B-minor Mass. No body could believe it. But there it is. And there are good fees. And they’re the major concert halls or the major universities.  Now, in the concert industry, it’s the universities that have the money, and it’s a good thing because they’re taking Art Buchwald and he costs money. 

Q:  You mentioned the trip to Russia. And that is something I certainly wanted to talk to you about. Robert Shaw Chorale was selected by the U. S. State Department?

RS:  And… and Vengerova, the wife of the wonderful conductor, Rostropovich. Did I say Vengerova, that’s not true. Vishnevskaya [is his wife].  Vengerova was the pianist at Juilliard who was the coach of Lennie Bernstein.

Vishnevskaya heard us rehearse the B-minor Mass in a little Drum studio, Carol Drum Service, 46th and Broadway,  {Interviewer: They were on tour here, I presume, the Rostropovich’s}

RS:  Well, they were here also looking over American artists that they wanted to have come over, and somehow our State Department said you can hear a rehearsal of the…and she decided that she wanted this and she had enough political power so that she didn’t meet any resistance. This was the first Bach and the first sacred stuff that had been done in Russia.  It was an incredible event for…I still meet people in orchestras around the United States whose parents were there or something.  It was an incredible sociological event for those people.

One elderly woman said the other day “It wasn’t quite always just the religion that quite so moved us.  It was the fact that you looked so free and you sang so freely.” 

We did a 6-week tour in a narrow north to south corridor that had Leningrad at the north and the Black Sea at the bottom.  I suppose there must have been 6 concerts in Moscow and 2 to 3 in Leningrad. And those in Leningrad coincided precisely with the Cuban Missile Crisis.  We thought we might be chased off, thrown stones at, or something.  It was always as we went in, huge crowds standing outside just to see the Americans go in, “Good luck and God Bless," and “Have a wonderful concert."  In Moscow when we left, I had finished the concert and you really didn’t do encores after the B-minor Mass, and they wanted them because they’d heard other programs and they had heard the black spirituals and they drove them insane. They loved the vitality of that.

There had been bows for 20 to 30 minutes and I went back and got dressed and came out.  It’s now an hour after the concert. I started walking across the stage to get out the stage door, and the audience is still there. Not only is the place still full of people but they’re all standing up quietly, not saying a word. It’s just scary how…

Van Cliburn had been there shortly before and, of course, that was a great sensation. But this had the difference of being a religious and a sociological thing, rather than simply just sort of a personal talent.  People’s lives, they say, were changed by it.  And they hadn’t heard the B minor Mass for a generation.  It simply wasn’t allowed which was surely their right.

Q:  Was there any reaction from the apparatchiks, the Party people?

RS:  Surprise.  Surprise that it could make that impact.  Not really. We guarded a difficult situation the night before of the final night where we were invited by young artists to come to a reception. These were young anti-Communists. We didn’t really know that except they slipped notes in our pocket as we walked down the street or something. They had to be very careful. We got there and they gave us many gifts, that is to say we…five or six of us, the Concert Mistress, two or three of the soloists, and myself.  They gave us gifts of paintings and sculpture, and all sorts of things to take with us. We ended up with about this thick of paintings and some of them were this big! With 15 or 20 of them. 

We obviously went with our State Department escorts.  We didn’t try to escape any of our own people or anything.  So they brought us in their cars, their State automobiles, the U.S. Embassy automobiles. There were drunks hanging around and laughing. These guys told us that they were faking the drunk, they were really Soviet spies, and so on, particularly looking to see what went on at this party.  So we got into the car, we were able to get all of the things into the car, loaded them up and headed immediately for the Embassy and went through the gates.  It was a year or maybe a year and a half later before any of this stuff arrived in the States and it came through Finland into the States.  I still get people who want to come and examine this with new kind of microscopes to see if there is anything under the 44th coat of paint on these things!

It was more severe on our side than it was on their side.  Our State Department was more scared of it than theirs was.  There might be maps of the sewer system on these paintings someplace.  The Russian guides were obliged not to talk to us except to point for us to get on this train car or this bus. We were advised not to talk to them.  In the mean time, there’s so much beauty and love and friendship going on between the performers and the audiences that it’s got to fracture some way.  It was a fabulous experience.

And it was a front-page story in the "New York Times."  It was a big event. It was on the REAL front page, not the front page of the Arts Section.  The same thing sort of happened in South America though without the political overtones. You’re allowed to love somebody who speaks Spanish. 

We were not restricted by the flavor of the McCarthy hearings from doing these international goodwill tours.  In a certain sense it is fortunate that the United States has been big enough to have some good people to go along with its bad people through the years.  We’re lucky because Democracy could fall apart if only the bad guys had all the votes.  

Q:  You sang in Europe, too, Western Europe?

RS:  Yep, Western Europe. We did one wonderful tour that did 21 countries; began in Egypt, up Cyprus, the longest stay we had was in Israel. We were the first group to sing any German in Israel. We sang in the YMCA there and also sang in Tel Aviv around, in a tent, at several of the Kibbutzim and even our bus had a bullet hole come through its roof when we were driving along the Sea of Galilee. 

We were in areas where there was some danger but not serious. And certainly it’s true, I don’t know, it must be true even today, that Israeli audiences are probably the richest in the world in their appreciation of European music. It is extraordinary.  They are all surprised that protestants can play violins.

Q:  Some years ago I was in Israel with a group of touring choral conductors and the one thing that was told us then was that, if you want to bring a choir to Israel and if you want to be sure of sell-out audiences, be sure to sing Bach.

RS:  Oh, really? Isn’t that interesting? Well, we busted that because we did "Christ lag in Todes Banden," and we did Liebeslieder Waltzes in different programs. We did the Mozart Requiem. Come to think of it, our music did not arrive for our Mozart Requiem in Jerusalem.  We collected enough scores from the audience to put a miniature score on each person’s stand and one person turned the pages while the other person played the notes and we got through the Mozart Requiem under those circumstances – because it had been advertised to do it!

Then we went up, as you might have expected, through the Western European countries and ended up in the Scandinavian countries, too, and England. And that’s the only time we were in Austria.

Q: The reason I mentioned the matter of Western Europe is I’m intrigued because the tradition of choral singing, certainly in Germany, has gone through a number of phases and it seems to me the Christiansen tradition that you talk about has pretty much been translated from Germany…

RS:  Except don’t you find that interrupted by the sort of ‘ha ha ha ha ha” treatment? That isn’t German, is it?  I find that a little more Scandinavian and I don’t think I am just being influenced by the Christiansen…The great guy, Ericson’s Choir, which is a great one that sings a pretty straight tone.  I find that a little characteristic of the boy’s voices in the German choirs but not of the men’s voices.

Q:  Well, the German choirs have changed a lot in the last 20 and 25 years but I think there was a reaction to an excessively Romantic singing style, this was something that one of my Teachers pointed out to me, that, in connection with the rise of Naziism there was this really romantic kind of singing where they had a movement known as Singverein where groups of young people would be walking through the woods singing nationalistic songs and the style was very fulsome with a lot of vibrato in the singing, very 19th century.  After the War people like Kurt Thomas who insisted on a very straight style of singing, I think there were political overtones; It was a reaction against what had happened in the Third Reich. That style of singing was picked up by other traditions.  It seems to me that there was some cross-pollination as far as Christiansen was concerned as well.  I am intrigued now to know…did you sing in Germany?

RS:  Yep, yep, yep. 

Q: How did they respond to your vocal style?

RS:  We don’t allow an awful lot of vibrato either. You never know if they respond to your vocal style or your choice of repertoire.  We had enough sense to end with black spirituals in those concerts.  And everybody enjoys a little vibrato there occasionally.  I think it was better disciplined than the opera choruses they were used to hearing. The point is that we never got any other than extraordinary review.  Our bad reviews, and we’ve had a few during the years, always came in the States by someone who got teed off by some aspect of the concert, or my personality, or something.  Or a difference of opinion about style of how Bach should be performed, or a Handel Messiah.