Robert Shaw in an interview with Howard Dyck, CBC, 1992
Q: So, after Atlanta, you’ve been - people tell me you’re busier than ever, that you’ve given up some of those administrative details that you say you didn’t enjoy doing quite as much, and you’re now really concentrating on things, it seems to me, that you seem to want to do - the workshops, the institutes in France. Tell me about those, why you do them, what makes those an important part of your year now?
RS: I was asked by Emory University to, right upon resigning from the duties as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony, if I would undertake to build a Robert Shaw Institute - that's their name. They’re the ones that coined that name. And Emory University, which because it had the most liberal of Methodist seminaries, and with an emphasis upon church music, interested me with the possibility of enlarging that with the faculty within the Institute, which could approach liturgical music in the twentieth century. And because it had a student body, a large, a reasonably large undergraduate student body, but a very large graduate student body, in law and medicine, I thought we might be able to even build some pretty decent choral instruments out there, and eventually base at least a chamber orchestra for the community.
Q: So, you were saying, there might be the possibility of building...
RS: Yeah, there, and also then working as I said into liturgical music, both in terms of training of choir directors and church musicians, as well as publications of new sacred music. But one of the projects which - since Mrs. Shaw and I had built a home in France - one of the projects which occurred to me, by our living over there, was that it might be possible to have a sort of isolated – an “ivory-tower” festival of choral musicians and make these conductors - a series of conductors, a group of conductors - a performing instrument, whereby we’d approach and master some of the great choral literature - not the symphonic choral literature but the chamber music literature and the a cappella literature. And use this as a three-week festival in the manner of Marlboro, or the Casals Festival, but in the field of choral music.
There were advantages in being over there, the first of which was that the region we were settled in, which was the southwest region of France, the Dordogne Valley, had scores of churches of twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth century, whose acoustical properties were sensational. And most sacred choral music stemming through the Baroque up through the Renaissance, up through the Baroque period, depended for a great deal of its beauty, upon acoustical properties such as these. And it’s impossible to find in the United States. At least it’s been my experience that it is.
RS: And so the other thing was that it gave us the isolative space we needed where there weren’t any other disturbances, and where you could just do nothing but music, ten, twelve, fourteen – all your waking hours. And so we opened this up with the help of Emory University. We advertised it in the choral journals, and scholarshipped sixty young conductors, and/or vocalists, for a three-week session in France and paid their way over, and gave them board and room while they were there, and paid their way home - figured this was the fastest way, the neatest way to change the system. It became a little bit difficult for Emory, because it cost about $250,000 the first year. It became a little bit difficult evidently for them to undertake it full-time, and particularly since their own program was so limited in their undergraduate school.
I did, in addition to that, I did some four to five major seminars each year on the Emory campus. But it was felt that the program in France was operating to the detriment of the program in Atlanta. I disagreed with that, but that’s beside the point. So it became necessary to look for a new home, and we weren’t able to find it right away, so that Mrs. Shaw and I carried the ball for the third one of these festivals.
And then the fourth was cancelled out by the world’s shortest war between the East and the West, or was shorted out by the world’s first cancelled war, one of the two.
And then we found a home in Ohio State University recently, where the choral music is led by Dr. Maurice Casey who is one of the real early members of the Robert Shaw Chorale, and made our tours in Europe, and the Middle East and Mediterranean countries, and also by a wonderful dean who is the head of what is called the College of Fine Arts, I think, which means all sorts of visual arts in addition to musical arts, and movement arts in addition to visual arts. And Donald Harris, who is an American composer as well, who was for some time Cultural Attaché to the American Embassy in Paris and loves France as much as we do, so this was a natural thing.
I was led into France. I would just as soon settled in Oregon Pacific coast or northern California coast. But Caroline went to school in France, and so we built our summer home there, and gradually our summer home has become just as important as our winter home. And, as a matter of fact, we have a more regular home life there, because once we’re there, other than this school, "we don’t go no place." So that’s become very dear to us.
And I really think that at the present time, under these circumstances, though I’ve taught in maybe forty to sixty major American universities or colleges, one to two weeks at least, in my life time, I think this is the most important teaching I’ve ever done. And this is my happiest performance life. I don’t think I’ve ever faced a finer chorus than I had with the chorus that recorded the Rachmaninov Vespers a couple years ago over there. I certainly have never performed in any acoustical conditions that met with them.
Choral conductors don’t have to have good voices – you are able to tell by mine that mine is less useful if I have to sing a wide range of pitches. But almost all of them have had some years of vocal training. And so they do have - both the women choral conductors and the men - they have performance skills. But the main thing is that you’ve got a chorus that can read almost anything, and who are committed to the most severe disciplines. They want them, and they also want to find fast ways of getting to here from there, or to there from here, and so you’ve got optimum conditions. We’re all isolated substantially from other distractions and other responsibilities. I suppose there are sequestered groups that go for religious reasons to retreats and such, but the same sort of atmosphere prevails under those conditions.