Passing of a musical giant
Robert Shaw’s genius created place for Atlanta on world stage
Wendell Brock, 01-26-1999, Atlanta Journal and Constitution
When Robert Shaw conducted one of the massive works of the choral repertoire --- something such as Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” or Bach’s Mass in B Minor --- he used to say it was an occasion of state. For him and his listeners, it was a moment when the earthbound music of man was transformed into some higher state of expression.
On Friday, when Shaw is memorialized in the city he loved, and that so loved him back, it is certain to be such an occasion of solemn grandeur. In an interview last year, Shaw said he was drawn to the helm of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1967 because he wanted to work in the city of such moral giants as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and legendary Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill. Now, with his death at 82, Shaw is being accorded the status of Atlanta icon, not unlike the great men he admired. Not only will he be remembered as the greatest cultural presence in the city’s history, but also as the century’s greatest choral musician.
“Summing up in a sentence or two the musicianship of Robert Shaw is like trying to write the history of Western civilization on the palm of your hand,” said Sylvia McNair, a Shaw protege and one of the world’s great sopranos. “The passing of Robert Shaw is not just the end of a life. It’s the end of an era. It’s the end of a legacy. Fortunately, he gave us all so much that he will never die.” McNair plans to sing Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the gospel standard “Shall We Gather at the River” at Friday’s Symphony Hall tribute.
The son of a minister who started out singing hymns around his mother’s piano, Shaw first caught the attention of radio entertainer Fred Waring. At 23, he was conducting Beethoven’s unmanageable Symphony No. 9 and “Missa Solemnis” for legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini. Except for John F. Kennedy, Shaw had known every U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt --- and he worked with nearly every musical luminary of this century, from composers Copland and Francis Poulenc to conductors George Szell and Igor Stravinksy.
He performed at the inauguration of President Carter in 1977, earned the Kennedy Center honors in 1991 and won 15 Grammys. After building the ASO Chorus into one of the world’s best, he retired from the symphony in 1988 --- 21 years after his arrival. But in his twilight years, his career was to achieve an almost greater luster.
Last September, after leading the National Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival, Shaw flew to Boston four days later to fill in for ailing conductor Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season opener. And in October, he was made an inaugural member of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
“He was, in the best sense, a musical pal,” said violinist Isaac Stern, himself one of the grand old men of American music, from his home in Connecticut, remembering Shaw’s legacy of Carnegie Hall workshops. “Atlanta and the music world will never be the same without him,” said ASO music director Yoel Levi, who was guest conducting in Haifa, Israel, when he heard of his predecessor’s death. “I personally will always remember and cherish the musical collaboration that we shared. He was an extraordinary man, full of wit and wisdom. May God give us all the strength to continue his work, his dream.”
Even as the tributes poured in Monday, there was some speculation over who would continue Shaw’s work. “We basically wanted him to outlive us all,” said Norman Mackenzie, assistant conductor of the ASO Chorus. “I absolutely thought he would.” Mackenzie said it is too early to say who would lead the chorus. “He was certainly pushing me in that direction, and I’m hoping to be a part of that discussion,” Mackenzie said.
Symphony musicians and choristers were grief-stricken Monday. “It’s a huge loss, and it’s going to be really hard to pick up where he left off,” said ASO principal clarinetist Laura Ardan. “I was really pretty close to him, and I didn’t expect it this soon.
“I think his life was really a testament to the human spirit,” she continues. “He was the greatest speaker about humanity I have ever known, and every time he conducted, you felt that in the music.”
Though Shaw was known as something of a womanizer and heavy drinker in the early days of his career, friends said he underwent a life change in 1973, when he married his second wife, Caroline Sauls Hitz. Together they raised Alex Hitz, her son by a previous marriage, and their son, Thomas Lawson Shaw. Mrs. Shaw died of cancer in 1995.
“He was such a supportive parent,” says Margaret McGinness, who taught the boys at Trinity School. “Any time Thomas or Alex were in a play or a sports event, he was always there. He had a zest for life. He was a tremendous sports fan.”
When a reporter arrived at Shaw’s house for an interview in October, the maestro first announced that his youngest son, a Yale drama student, would be starring in “Hamlet” and directing and acting in a play by Samuel Beckett this year. On Saturday night, in the middle of his son’s production of “Endgame” at Yale, Shaw had a massive stroke. He died early Monday morning.
Shaw’s contribution to Atlanta --- and to the choral genre --- seems nearly inexhaustible. In 1993 The New York Times called him “the most important choral conductor in the United States for the better part of five decades.”
As leader of the Robert Shaw Chorale, he established the world’s first professional chorus and set new standards for disciplined, powerful choral singing. At the ASO, he took the orchestra from a part-time ensemble of 60 mostly amateur musicians to a professional symphony of 93 full-time musicians. The budget ballooned from $500,000 to $12 million. When Shaw arrived, the city had no internationally known cultural institutions. In his first year here, he started the ASO Chorus. During his tenure, the chorus and orchestra made 12 critically acclaimed appearances at Carnegie Hall in New York and toured nationally and internationally.
Shaw and the orchestra earned six Grammy Awards before he retired to the post of music director emeritus and conductor laureate. In the years since, he had continued to conduct the orchestra to great critical acclaim and earned nine more Grammys. Last month, his recording of Barber’s “Prayers of Kierkegaard” was nominated for two Grammys. When Shaw took the orchestra and chorus to Paris, London, Berlin and Zurich, Switzerland, in 1988, it was the largest performing arts group ever to travel from America to Europe. Their stunningly emotional performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in East Berlin ended with nine curtain calls.
A man of seeming contradictions, Robert Shaw was deeply religious, yet he was openly scornful of almost all organized religion.
Given to frequent rages liberally laced with virtuoso profanity (and afflicted with a slight stammer), he was nevertheless a powerfully eloquent public speaker and a passionate cheerleader for the arts. He was famous for bursting into tears on hearing great music-making or powerful oratory.
And even though he was best known as the world’s greatest conductor of 18th- and 19th-century choral masterpieces, Shaw was a dogged supporter of 20th-century music.
If there was a defining feature of Shaw’s life, it was that he never expected to be leader of a chorus, an orchestra conductor or a music director before those jobs were offered to him, and he arrived at each post, by his own admission, underprepared.
In his own succinct phrase, Robert Shaw’s life was “a parade of unexpected invitations and then makeup lessons.”
If he had been preparing for anything, it was a career in religion. Robert Lawson Shaw was born April 30, 1916, in Red Bluff, Calif., the son of the Rev. Shirley Richard Shaw, a minister of the Christian Church, and Nelle Mae Lawson Shaw, the daughter of a minister. One of five children, young Robert’s early musical education consisted of family sing-alongs and a little experience leading a church choir. When he arrived at Pomona College in California, he began studying philosophy and comparative religion.
But when Shaw was a freshman, the leader of the college glee club fell ill, and he was elected by the other members to substitute for a full year.
During this period, Fred Waring, conductor of popular choruses, arrived on campus to make a movie, spotted Shaw and offered him a job leading Waring choruses. Shaw originally declined, but after graduating, he agreed to join Waring in New York.
Within a few years, Shaw had formed his own chorus, the Collegiate Chorale, that specialized in popular American ballads. Soon he began attempting more serious classical works and was hired to prepare choruses for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Then came a fateful invitation from the legendary maestro of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini, to prepare his Collegiate Chorale to sing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. It was the turning point in Shaw’s career.
In an interview last fall, Shaw remembered Toscanini telling him: “’You know, maestro.’ Here I was a 23-year-old kid and he said, ’You know, maestro, I never have had a good performance.’ He said almost always the soloists are bad, and he said sometimes the chorus is behind, and the orchestra doesn’t always play together, and I never feel equal to this piece.”
A few days before the performance, Toscanini went to a chorus rehearsal. Throughout the performance, Toscanini paced back and forth at the rear of the rehearsal hall. At the end of the rehearsal, Shaw recalled Toscanini as saying: “Maestro, this is the first time in my life I’ve ever heard it done.’” Then, Shaw said, “Of course we all began to cry!”
After that, the Beethoven Ninth became Shaw’s signature piece. He conducted it on his first and last concerts as music director in Atlanta --- and he was planning to conduct it during the ASO’s 1999-2000 season. Although the 120-voice Collegiate Chorale was a success, it was made up entirely of amateur singers. (In fact, the singers were charged $10 a year to join the chorus.) That meant virtually all of them had outside jobs, and rehearsals could be held only once a week. But in 1948, Shaw decided to form a full-time professional chorus that would tour the nation and the world.
But it was not an easy life.
“In those days when we toured with the chorale, there wasn’t much else to do in a lot of those cities but drink. A half bottle of Jack Daniel’s could disappear in a twinkling,” recalled Florence Kopleff, a contralto who sang for Shaw for her entire professional career --- following him from the founding of the Collegiate Chorale throughout his tenure as ASO music director.
His poorly concealed womanizing also took its toll. Shaw had married his college sweetheart, Maxine Farley, in 1939 and together they had three children. But during the chorale years, they were constantly apart, and Shaw conceded they had not lived together for 15 years before their formal divorce in 1973.
The chorale sang with virtually every major American orchestra. But feeling his lack of formal training more intensely in these orchestra concerts, Shaw took two years off beginning in 1949 to study music theory. He also learned to play the piano and studied the theory of orchestra conducting.
“I’ve always been a bit self-conscious about my musical background,” Shaw said in an interview shortly before his retirement. “I’ve always been aware that I didn’t have the equipment --- perhaps even by nature, but certainly not by experience or education.”
In 1956, George Szell, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, asked Shaw to build a chorus for his orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra was acknowledged as one of the best in the world, and Szell was considered one of the world’s greatest living conductors. Under Szell, Shaw’s “makeup lessons” continued.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, a small instrumental organization known as the In and About Atlanta Orchestra, founded in 1945, had been growing into the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of its first music director, Henry Sopkin. When Sopkin announced he would retire after the 1965-66 concert season, Shaw’s name surfaced.
“He already had an international reputation with the Robert Shaw Chorale and just his fame would bring us some notches up,’’ Martin Sauser, then concertmaster of the orchestra, recalled several years ago. As he had with Waring nearly three decades earlier, Shaw initially declined the offer, only to accept a second one some weeks later. “I don’t have the world’s largest repertoire, but possibly if I work hard enough, I can stay one jump ahead of the musicians,” Shaw said at the time.
Atlanta’s enthusiasm for Shaw was instantaneous. More than 5,000 tickets were sold for his first concerts at the old Municipal Auditorium, and his initial concert was carried live on local television. During his first year in Atlanta, Shaw took the unprecedented step in a city still largely segregated of establishing a weeklong residency at historically black Spelman College. Throughout his Atlanta career, Shaw constantly sought wider involvement of the orchestra with the city’s African-American community. He became closely associated with the late Wendell Whalum, conductor of the Morehouse Glee Club (in which Martin Luther King Jr. had sung) and frequently conducted choruses at black churches.
Shaw also commissioned new works from a half-dozen African-American composers and hired African-Americans T.J. Anderson and Alvin Singleton as the orchestra’s first two composers in residence.
Five years after Shaw’s arrival, the sunny honeymoon grew cloudy. In 1972, the orchestra board members voted not to renew his contract. During his first four seasons, Shaw had insisted on programming the complex contemporary music of Penderecki, Schoenberg, Webern, Lutoslawski and Ligeti, among others.
When Shaw announced his fifth season including 10 works by American iconoclast Charles Ives, it was the last straw. Concerned about lagging ticket sales and convinced that Shaw’s adventurous programming of 20th-century music was partly to blame, some board members said quietly that it might be easier to sell tickets with a conductor more responsive to popular taste.
Shaw refused to be pushed. A campaign was mounted to show support for him in the most potent way possible --- advance ticket sales for a music season more than six months away. Within two weeks, 3,500 new season subscribers sent in checks, but all carried the notation that Shaw should conduct. The board relented and he was rehired. Over the next two years, Shaw threatened to resign twice more over philosophical differences with ASO management.
The mercurial maestro’s temper was well-known. During rehearsals, Shaw raged at his choristers, but was more restrained with members of the orchestra. He sat on a stool, invariably dressed in the midnight-blue rehearsal shirts he favored (even his formal conducting suit of tails was midnight blue instead of the traditional black), sweating so profusely that the pages of his music scores were wrinkled from years of contact with perspiration.
At the intermission of concerts, Shaw usually showered and put on a dry suit of white tie and tails.
For his entire professional career, Shaw wrote a formal letter following each rehearsal --- invariably on Monday evenings --- with his choruses. Always beginning, “Dear People,” the letters were both didactic sermons on musical performance practice and wide-ranging philosophical ruminations.
Preparing for a performance of the Beethoven Ninth, Shaw used his “Dear People” letter to chide his choristers: “Our tenors are adolescent. Our altos have not passed puberty. Our sopranos trip their dainty ballet of coloratura decorum, and our basses woof their wittle gway woofs all the way home. . . . Get your backs and bellies into it! You can’t sing Beethoven from the neck up --- you’ll bleed! Beethoven is not precious. He’s prodigal as hell. He tramples all over nicety. He’s ugly, heroic; he roars, he lusts after beauty, he rages after nobility. Be ye not temperate!”
When Shaw retired in 1988, tributes were written by everyone from President Reagan to Leonard Bernstein. Most were standard salutes to Shaw’s long tenure and significant contributions to the city, state and nation. The ASO board gave him a Picasso.
He was appointed a member of the National Council on the Arts by President Carter and received, among other awards, the National Federation of Music Awards’ Alice M. Ditson Medal, Yale University’s Samuel Simons Sanford Medal and the first Fulton County Arts Award for his “monumental artistic achievement.”
Shaw guest-conducted the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony and others. He received more than 15 honorary degrees, including ones from Emory and Oglethorpe Universities in Atlanta, the New England Conservatory of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music. He spent four months of each year in the south of France, where he conducted the Robert Shaw Institute and festival, supported by Ohio State University.
In addition to his son Thomas and his stepson, Alex, Shaw is survived by his three children from his first marriage, Dr. Johanna Shaw of Providence, R.I., and Nantucket, Mass., Peter Thain Shaw of Portland, Ore., and John Thaddeus Shaw of Lathrop, Calif.
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