Robert Shaw in an interview with Howard Dyck, CBC, 1992
Q: Well, now you mentioned names like Koussevitzky and Toscanini and I have to know that - how you met these people? What was the point of contact, say, between you and Toscanini?
RS: Well, Toscanini. Samuel Chotzinoff is a name which used to be – I mean you had to couture with in American music because he’d essentially been responsible for the formation of the NBC Symphony. It was his project working for NBC. He’d heard this group and he said "Maestro, you’ve got to hear this group because you’ve not heard a chorus like this." So he arranged for us to do a Ninth Symphony in one of Toscanini’s many benefit performances for children’s hospitals or something, at Carnegie Hall.
Q: Toscanini would agree to this sort of sight unheard?
RS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I guess he trusted Chotzinoff. Chotzinoff - essentially he put together his orchestra and he never had an orchestra quite like that before. Unfortunately, they didn’t give him a hall. They gave him Studio 8-H instead of one of the great halls because that had to be one of the greatest assemblings of talent that had ever been in the United States.
So what happened - we were supposed to do a concert of the Ninth Symphony with them in the end of September. Well, schools don’t begin until sort of the middle of September, so we don’t have – we’d sent out letters and got - we usually took the summer off in the Collegiate Chorale when the people were on vacations and such. But we got a couple of rehearsals before we had to meet with him. And I can remember - this I can remember very clearly, that we had two, maybe two and a half rehearsals on the piece, and it’s not all that long, the Ninth Symphony. There are a good 60 minutes or 55 minutes of music that don’t involve the chorus. So we’d rehearsed it. And I had been to visit him, and he had been very, very gracious and I had been able to ask the questions which seemed to me essential.
By that time I had also prepared something for Koussevitzky and I’d prepared hundreds of radio broadcasts for Waring, and done a few things for CBS: christmas carol concerts and Handel’s Messiah with Thomas Beecham, and so on.
But I asked him, “Maestro, what do you do here – how fast with this change of tempo here?” and I had my stopwatch so I could figure it out pretty well. And we managed to outguess him very well. And he walked up, and our rehearsal was shaped a little bit like this room - longer than it is flat and it’s narrow this way, and we rehearsed the long way because we had so many people. And he walked up and down the 100 feet in back of me.
He came to rehearsal and I introduced him and said, “Where do you wish to begin?” and he said “You’re going to begin” and I said “Well, no, I hadn’t counted on this at all." I said “We’ve got to learn to do this with you.” And he said “No. I will listen. You go through.” And, so we did. And I could see where he was because he was in back of me because the choir was looking at him, not at me. Their faces were like ping-pong slow motion, a tennis match with the balls on strings or something. And we finished. And he came up and put his arms around me and says “It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever heard it sung.” And I said, “And we’re not through yet”. And he says, “I’ll see you at the performance” and he walked out of the room. I couldn’t stop him. As it turned out, though he said “I’ll see you at the performance,” there was a run through before the performance of the fourth movement and the choir did very handsomely indeed.
He, evidently, went back because I heard later from Chotzinoff . Chotzinoff said, “It had to be just awful because he’d only been there 20 minutes, just to hear the thing through,” and Chotzinoff thought he’d be there for an hour at least, maybe two hours, finishing the thing up. And he [Toscanini] said “No. There’s nothing to do. This is the first time I’ve ever really heard it.”
I had asked him specific questions which were wonderful for me at that time – were serious for me; “Would it be alright to put a little - the alto part in this piece is so low that unless you put a few tenor voices on it, the thing is just lost. “Would it be alright to do that?” He says, “Will it make it heard?” And I said, “I think it is the only way it can be”. He says “You know, I’ve never heard those notes before. I see them but I never hear them.” He said, “Maestro…” he called me Maestro. “I’ve never had a good performance. The soloists, they can’t sing because they get - and the chorus is always messy, and then the orchestra makes mistakes- the recitative in the fourth movement with the celli and the basses. Every time I fail the piece completely.”
And here’s the guy who, from my society in those years, was the symbol of the great Beethoven that existed in the world, saying that he couldn’t do it. And so I wonder where this demon is that I’ve read about in the newspapers. He was a man of extraordinary modesty in front of the score and sweet, sweet human kindness.
One wonderful story is a couple of years after this, we had finished the broadcast with Guido Cantelli, who was also a protégé of his, and it was just before Guido got killed in the plane crash in Italy. We’d done a program of the Monteverdi Vespers. And we finished it. It was a Christmas Eve sort of program and I had arranged with Walter Toscanini, Maestro’s son, to go up and sing some Christmas Carols for him. There were forty of us who’d worked with him before. We had done Falstaff, and we’d done the Verdi Requiem, and we’d done Masked Ball, and we did the Missa Solemnis. And we’d done the Ninth Symphony, and these pieces. We loved him. And he was so kind and generous to us so we gathered outside the door of the mansion in Westchester - not Westchester, Riverdale - just above the Harlem River Bridge that goes over from Manhattan to Westchester County. We started in and the door opened and Walter said “Shh” and brought us into the living room where there was a great marble stairway that went up to a second story and he says, “Get up there.”
Toscanini was in the library looking at wrestling on television. It’s now 12, 1 o’clock in Monday morning and he loved to see wrestling on television. And, he couldn’t sleep much. He didn’t sleep much in his later years, I guess. We started singing Christmas Carols and he tottered out with his little walk and stood there with his hands clasped and we sang our whole repertoire of Christmas Carols, which was pretty large in those years. For thirty minutes we sang Christmas Carols and tears going down his cheeks.
And then they opened the door to the dining room, double doors, and there were wines and champagnes and Italian pastries and cheeses. But the great thing was that he went around and he talked to every one of those 40 people for five minutes each. How is that possible? But we didn’t leave until 4 a.m.. And here was the world’s sweetest human being trying to be nice to each one of ‘em. That was a close and loving relationship.
I also had a wonderful time. I visited him in Lago Maggiore, where I went this last summer to see if it was still there. And also to see where Isola Bella was and Isola Toscanini was, and Maggiore. And we found that it’s about true what I remembered.
I was asked by Toscanini’s daughter and granddaughter - they have a little island and the only house on the island. It’s just a couple hundred yards off the coast. But it’s a long lake, maybe fifty miles long. And the winds come down from the Alps and when they come down, it’s like being in a Pacific Ocean storm, like a typhoon. And we got caught in one.
I was to row them over to an Isola Pescatori which had a little restaurant and they wanted a glass of wine and a cup of coffee and stuff. Toscanini had his dinner always at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, which was only a bowl of soup, and then he’d go lie down for the rest of the night if he could.
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And, we got over there and an old fisherman touched the Countess on the shoulder and said “You’d better start back because we hear terrible tales about the weather that’s going to happen." So we started back and we got caught. The lights went out around the lake, and its 50 miles long one way and five miles across the other we were just in waves up to - in a round-bottomed row boat and we were shipping water like crazy. And I had my wife then as well as his daughter and his granddaughter.
We finally were able to beach just by bloat-up almost on a little island and I figured maybe we should just spend the night there but then I thought, “He knows that everybody’s drowned if they don’t show up”. So, we started out again and they’re on the bottom of the boat trying to hold the boat down. “Madre de Dios.” Every prayer is going on all over the place and I’m the only one rowing. My hands are red with blood, my tail is blistered, and we finally got close enough to find a little bit of light. So we moved towards the light. Shucks, this is two hours of rowing, against waves that are three and five feet high! And he’d gone around and put candles in every room in that castle.
Q: So you’d be able to see them.
RS: Yeah, so we could. And I had brought his daughter and granddaughter back to earth again. So, there was a very loving relationship. He even allowed us to have his picture taken the next day, which he just wouldn’t do. But we had pictures taken of two or three of us together.
Q: Back to the choir for a minute. Did he ever tell you what it was about the choir that he liked so much? He’d obviously done the Ninth many, many times.
RS: No. I think, though, Szell and I - this is a circuitous way of answering your question - Szell and I met at a Toscanini rehearsal and Szell once said to me, “Robert, you conduct a chorus like I conduct an orchestra.” I think he heard more right notes than he’d ever heard before and less sort of vocal show-off - I ‘m talking about soloistic, vocal showoff, which means mostly using their voices beyond their capacity to gear into either pitch, or time, or enunciation. I am answering your question by guessing. No, he did not tell me. But I am answering by guessing.