Robert Shaw is considered one of the most significant choral conductors of the twentieth century. Through his work with the renowned Robert Shaw Chorale and other ensembles, he raised the standards for choral conducting to those of orchestral conductors. He pioneered techniques for preparing and rehearsing choral groups that are now used throughout the world. “Earlier on, you wouldn’t even have called choral directors conductors,”Dennis Keene of New York’s Ascension Music told the New York Times.“They were chorus masters. Shaw changed all that.”
Robert Lawson Shaw was born on April 30, 1916, in Red Bluff, California. Shaw’s father was a minister, and his mother was an accomplished singer and frequently directed the choirs in her husband’s churches. As a result, Shaw and his brothers and sisters were exposed to singing and singers from an early age, and he began working with choirs himself. “All five children ended up in music,” he told the St Louis Post-Dispatch’s Sarah Bryan Miller. “All of us directed a choir to help pay our way through school.” By the time he had reached his teens, Shaw was skilled at working with singing groups.
Shaw studied literature and philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and looked forward to a career in the ministry. Continuing his interest in music, though, Shaw took over directing the college glee club on a temporary basis. When Fred Waring came to town with his popular vocal ensemble to make a movie, Waring heard the Pomona Glee Club and was impressed enough to offer Shaw a job. Shaw hesitated at first, but soon changed his mind. He moved to New York at the end of 1938 and assembled the Fred Waring Glee Club.
Shaw built a reputation through his work with Waring. “Every word could be understood, the intonation and balances were flawless,” Stephen Wigler wrote in the Baltimore Sun, describing the sensation Shaw’s group created, “and singing teachers around the country began to tell their students to listen to the programs for examples of excellent singing.” Before long, Shaw was working on Broadway musicals with Oscar Hammer-stein and Billy Rose. He became known as a choral director who was able to miraculously create cohesion among groups of amateur singers. In 1941, Shaw founded his own group, the Collegiate Chorale, made completely of amateurs who paid annual dues of $10 to support the group. Shaw never had reservations about working with non-professional singers, though. “There’s almost no limit to the competence of devoted amateurs,” he told Michael Anthony of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I’ve often thought it was as difficult to be a professional about music as it would be to be professional about sex,” he commented with a smile to Los Angeles Times writer Kenneth Herman. “It’s terribly important to retain that amateur spirit, because the root of ’amateur’ means to love what you are doing.”
For the Record…
Born Robert Lawson Shaw on April 30, 1916, in Red Bluff, CA; died on January 25, 1999, in New Haven, CT; married twice; three sons: Thomas Lawson Shaw, Peter Thain Shaw, and John Thaddeus Shaw, one daughter: Dr. Johanna Shaw, and one step-son: Alexander Crawford Hitz. Education: Graduated from Pomona College, 1938.
Assembled Fred Waring Glee Club, 1938; formed Collegiate Chorale, 1941; worked with Arturo Toscanini and NBC Symphony, early 1940s; served on the faculty at Tanglewood in Massachusetts, 1942-45; named America’s greatest choral conductor by National Association of Composers and Conductors, 1943; made orcestral conducting debut with Naumburg Orchestra, 1946; organized Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra, 1948; conductor of San Diego Symphony, 1953-58; became associate conductor of Cleveland Orchestra, 1956; disbanded Robert Shaw Chorale to become director of Atlanta Symphony, 1967; conducted his only opera, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, with the Opera Company of Boston, MA, 1978; resigned Atlanta directorship, 1988; organized Robert Shaw Festival, early 1990s.
Awards: Guggenheim Fellowship; Grammy Awards include: Best Classical Choral Performance, 1961; Best Classical Choral Performance, 1964; Best Classical Choral Performance, 1965; Best Classical Choral Performance, 1966; Best Classical Orchestral Recording, Best Choral Performance, Best Classical Album, 1985; Best Choral Performance, 1987; Best Choral Performance, Best Orchestral Recording, Best Classical Album, 1988; Best Choral Performance, 1989; Best Choral Performance, 1990; Best Choral Performance, 1997; Best Choral Performance, Best Classical Album, 1998; additional awards include Gramophone Magazine Award, Best Choral Work, 1989; Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award for Performing Artists, 1991; National Medal of Arts, 1992; French Order of Officier des Arts et Lettres; inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, 1998.
The Collegiate Chorale made its debut at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1942. Not much later, Shaw met Arturo Toscanini, then the conductor of the NBC Radio Orchestra, who asked him to prepare the NBC Chorus for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “choral symphony.” Toscanini was skeptical, telling Shaw he had never heard a satisfactory performance of the Ninth. However, Toscanini enthused after the performance that it was the first time he had heard the piece really sung. “In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for,” Toscanini told his musicians, according to Wigler. Shaw worked with Toscanini for much of the decade, molding the chorus into a flexible, responsive instrument. By 1943, Shaw had made such a name for himself that the National Association of Composers and Conductors named him America’s greatest choral conductor.
The Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra were founded in 1948. The chorale is his best-known group, the one for which Shaw is most renowned. During its 17 years, the chorale made countless recordings, won several Grammy Awards, and gave concerts in over 30 countries under the United States State Department’s auspices. The chorale was a professional ensemble made up of approximately 35 voices. When Shaw put the group together, he found there was no lack of talent. Trained singers were flocking to New York hoping to make a career. The quality of the chorale in the late 1940s astounded even Shaw himself more than 40 years later. “We certainly don’t have those high-profile professional choral groups any more,” he told Herman in 1991. “When I listen to some of my earlier records—which I do when Telarc wants me to re-record some of the things we used to do then—I’m astounded at the quality of the vocal sound, which seems to me to be remarkable.”
During the 1950s, the name Robert Shaw was practically synonymous with choral singing and directing. Between his television and radio appearances, his recordings, and his concerts, Shaw was nearly ubiquitous. But his work with Toscanini had awakened a desire to move into symphonic conducting. By the late 1940s, Shaw had begun to make the transition. In 1946, he made his conducting debut with the Naumburg Orchestra in New York. Later he participated in formal studies with conductors Pierre Monteux and Artur Rodzinski, and in 1952, was invited by George Szell to guest conduct the Cleveland Orchestra. That initial position changed to an ongoing relationship when Shaw became the orchestra’s associate conductor in 1956. Shaw would later say that his time with the Cleveland Orchestra was critical to his development.
Shaw remained with the Cleveland Orchestra until 1967, while at the same time continuing his work with his chorale. By the time he ended his stint there, the Los Angeles Times paid Shaw the highest praise: “It is worth noting that Shaw has become an all-purpose conductor first, and specifically a conductor of choruses second.” He left Cleveland and disbanded his chorale to become conductor of the Atlanta Symphony, the biggest challenge of his musical career. When he arrived in Georgia, he found an orchestra manned largely by amateur musicians who performed in a civic arena. By the 1990s, the ensemble had recorded a number of best-selling records for the Telarc label, albums that earned fourteen Grammy Awards.
Shaw’s tenure in Atlanta was not without controversy. He programmed modern works along with the standard, pre-1880 classical repertoire, causing the orchestra’s executive committee to decide he was performing too much modern music and fire him in 1972. The action unleashed a storm of protests in Atlanta. “There were kids out on the street corners with waste-paper baskets selling season tickets,” Shaw told Michael Anthony of the Minneapolis Star Tribune .“They asked that the checks be made out to the Atlanta Symphony and Robert Shaw, which meant they had to be co-signed. The point was there was a whole group of people who wanted the new music, and they had never been organized before.” The orchestra relented, and Shaw stayed in Atlanta until 1988.
When Shaw finally resigned, however, he in no way retired. He organized the Robert Shaw Choral Institute at Ohio State University, a doctoral program focusing on both musicology and performance. He also started the Robert Shaw Festival, a series of workshops and seminars for choral conductors and singers. The festival is supported by a foundation, the Robert Shaw Institute, and an association of benefactors based in France called Les Amis de Robert Shaw. For much of the last decade of his life, Shaw and his wife, Caroline Saulas, divided their time between homes in Atlanta and Souillac, France, where the Robert Shaw Institute had its offices. After Caroline died in 1995, Shaw relocated the institute and festival to the United States.
Over the years, both musicians and general audiences alike were astounded by the sound Shaw’s choral groups were able to achieve. Anthony defined what he believed to be Shaw’s formula for his remarkable choral sound: “(1) a lyric soprano sound as opposed to that of a dramatic soprano, (2) a concern for even balance among the sections, (3) an insistence on clear articulation of words, which he attributes to his early work with Fred Waring, and (4) a steady rhythm.” Shaw was not a dictator on the podium like many other famous conductors, but he had no patience for inaccurate pitch or sloppy rhythms from his singers. He worked patiently to get the precision he valued, and he was just as demanding of himself as a conductor: “The business of the conductor is to get out of the way of the composer, rather than interpose himself, “he told Karen Campbell of the Christian Science Monitor.”Music is ultimately an art of collaboration, not personal showmanship. Even at the moment of a cappella singing, one is obliged to remember that somebody else wrote the song.”
Shaw died on January 25, 1999, in New Haven, Connecticut, at the age of 82. His last concert, during which he performed the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Magnificat, was given on December 18, 1998.
With the Robert Shaw Chorale
Hindemith: Six Chansons, RCA Victor, 1945.
Bach: Magnificat, RCA Victor, 1946.
Christmas Hymns & Carols, Vol. 1, RCA Victor, 1946.
Bach: Mass in B Minor, RCA Victor, 1947.
Gershwin: Porgy and Bess (highlights), RCA, 1950.
Mozart: Requiem, RCA, 1950.
A Treasure of Easter Songs, RCA, 1951.
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9, RCA, 1952.
Beethoven: Missa Solemnis, NBC, 1953.
With Love From A Chorus, RCA, 1954.
Beloved Hymns, RCA, 1956.
Great Sacred Choruses, RCA, 1956.
My True Love Sings, RCA, 1956.
A Mighty Fortress, RCA, 1957.
Deep River and Other Spirituals, RCA, 1957.
Christmas Hymns and Carols, Vol. I, RCA, 1957.
Christmas Hymns and Carols, Vol. II, RCA, 1958.
On Stage With Robert Shaw, RCA Victor, 1958.
The Stephen Foster Songbook, RCA, 1958; reissued by RCA, 1993.
Bach: Jesu, Meine Freude, RCA Victor, 1958.
What Wonderous Love, RCA, 1959.
A Chorus of Love from the Men of the Robert Shaw Chorale, RCA, 1959.
Operatic Choruses, RCA, 1959.
Bach: Mass in B Minor, RCA, 1960; reissued by BMG, 1999.
The Immortal Victor Herbert, RCA, 1960.
Sea Shanties, RCA, 1960; reissued on CD by RCA, 1999.
I’m Goin’to Sing: Sixteen Spirituals, RCA, 1961.
Vaughn Williams: Mass in G, 1961.
23 Glee Club Favorites, RCA, 1961.
This Is My Country, RCA, 1962; reissued on CD by BMG Classics, 1991.
Yours is My Heart Alone/All Time Favorites, RCA, 1962.
A Festival of Carols, 1963; reissued on CD by RCA, 1987.
The Many Moods of Christmas, RCA, 1963; reissued on CD by RCA, 1997.
Robert Shaw Chorale on Tour, RCA, 1963.
Britten: Ceremony of Carols, Rejoice in the Lamb and Festival Te Deum, RCA, 1963.
Songs of Faith and Inspiration, RCA, 1964.
Poulenc: Gloria/Stravinski: Symphonie des Pasaumes, RCA, 1964.
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols, Rejoice in the Lamb, Festival Te Deum, RCA, 1964.
Robert Shaw Chorale On Broadway, RCA, 1965.
Vivaldi: Gloria and Kyrie Eleison, RCA, 1965.
Handel: The Messiah, 1752-53 edition, RCA, 1966.
Sing to the Lord, RCA, 1966.
Handel: The Messiah (highlights), RCA Victor, 1967.
Irish FolkSongs, RCA, 1968; reissued on CD, 1990.
Now We Go A-Caroling: A Christmas Sing-In, RCA Victor, 1970.
Nativity: A Christmas Concert with Robert Shaw, RCA, 1976.
Joy to the World, RCA/Camden, 1987.
With the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Vox, 1977.
Borodin: Prince Igor: Overture and Polovtsian Dances/Stravinski: Firebird, Telarc, 1978.
Orff: Carmina Burana, Telare, 1983.
The Many Moods of Christmas, Telare, 1983.
Brahms: Ein Deutches Requiem, Telare, 1984.
Handel: The Messiah Favorite Choruses and Arias, Telare, 1984.
Handel: The Messiah (complete version), Telare, 1984.
Choral Masterpieces, Telare, 1985.
Mozart: Requiem, Telare, 1986.
Hindemith: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Telare, 1987.
Verdi: Requiem and Operatic Choruses, Telare, 1987.
Encores A la Francaise, Telare, 1987.
Brahms: Alto Rhapsody, Schicksalslied, Nänie, Gesang der Parzen, Telare, 1988.
Poulenc: Mass in G major and Motets for Christmas and Lent, Telare, 1988.
Rorem: String Symphony, Sunday Morning, Eagles, New World, 1988.
Britten: The War Requiem, Telare, 1989.
Vivaldi: Gloria/Bach: Magnificat, Telare, 1989.
Singleton: Shadows, After Fallen Crumbs, A Yellow Rose Petal, Nonesuch, 1989.
Schubert: Mass No. 2 and Mass No. 6, Telare, 1990.
Beethoven: Mass in C, Elgiac Song, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Telare, 1990.
Bach: Mass in B Minor, Telare, 1990.
Mahler: Symphony of a Thousand, No. 8, Telare, 1991.
Haydn: The Creation, Telare, 1992.
Paulus: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Concertante, Symphony for Strings, New World Records, 1992.
Philip Glass: Itaipu, The Canyon, Sony Classical, 1993.
Brahms: Concerto for Piano No. 2 in B flat major, Pro Arte, 1993.
Grand and Glorius: Great Operatic Choruses, Telare, 1994.
The Power and The Majesty: Essential Choral Classics, Robert Shaw Festival Singers, Telare, 1995.
Mendelssohn: Elijah, Telare, 1995.
Brahms: Concerto for Piano No.1 in D minor, Pro Arte, 1997.
Absolute Heaven, Telare, 1997.
Glorial-Music of Praise and Inspiration, Telare, CD-80519, 1998.
Dvorak: Stabat Mater, Telare, 1999.
With the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers
Songs of Angels-Christmas Hymns and Carols, Telare, 1994.
Shubert: Songs for Male Chorus, Telare, 1994.
A Robert Shaw Christmas: Angels on High, Telare, 1997.
With the Robert Shaw Festival Singers
Rachmaninoff: Vespers, Telare, 1990.
Brahms: Liebeslieder Waltzes, New Liebeslieder and Seven Songs of Evening, Telare, 1993.
Amazing Grace: American Hymns and Spirituals, Telare,
Evocation of the Spirit, Telare, 1995.
Appear & Inspire, Telare, 1996.
Baltimore Sun, October 18, 1995.
Christian Science Monitor, March 13, 1996.
Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1991; January 26, 1999.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 2, 1994.
New York Times, April 13, 1999.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 29, 1998.
Washington Post, December 8, 1991; January 8, 1994; September 6, 1998.
Robert Shaw Discography, http://www.ncc.com/humans/scr/rs.html (April 3, 2001).
—Gerald E. Brennan
Nationality: British. Born: Westhoughton, Lancashire, 9 August 1927. Education: Attended Truro School, Cornwall; Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, London. Family: Married 1) the actress Jennifer Bourke, 1952 (divorced), four daughters; 2) the actress Mary Ure, 1963 (died 1975), four children; 3) Virginia Hansen, 1976, two children. Career: 1948–49—member of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford upon Avon; 1951—West End debut in Hamlet; joined Old Vic troupe, and toured in Europe and South Africa; film debut in The Lavender Hill Mob; 1956—in TV series The Scarlet Pimpernel; 1956–57—in TV series The Buccaneers; 1959—first of several prize-winning novels, The Hiding Place; later dramatized by Shaw; 1961—Broadway debut in The Caretaker; 1968—his play The Man in the Glass Booth, based on his novel, produced in both London and New York, and in 1975 made into a movie; 1976—co-host of Academy Awards show. Died: In Tourmakeady, Ireland, 28 August 1978.
Films as Actor:
The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton) (as police scientist)
The Dam Busters (Anderson) (as Flight Sgt. Pulford)
Doublecross (Squire); A Hill in Korea (Hell in Korea) (Amyes) (as Lance-Cpl. Hodge)
Sea Fury (Enfield) (as Gorman); Libel (Asquith) (as first photographer)
The Valiant (L'affondamento della Valiant) (Roy Ward Baker) (as Lt. Field)
Tomorrow at Ten (Comfort) (as Marlow); The Caretaker (The Guest) (Clive Donner) (as Aston); From Russia with Love (Terence Young) (as Red Grant)
The Luck of Ginger Coffey (Kershner) (title role); Carol for Another Christmas (Joseph L. Mankiewicz—for TV)
Battle of the Bulge (Annakin) (as Col. Hessler)
A Man for All Seasons (Zinnemann) (as King Henry VIII)
Custer of the West (Good Day for Fighting) (Siodmak) (as Gen. George Custer); The Birthday Party (Friedkin) (as Stanley Weber)
Battle of Britain (Hamilton) (as Squadron Leader Skipper); The Royal Hunt of the Sun (Lerner) (as Francisco Pizarro)
Figures in a Landscape (Losey) (as MacConnachie, + sc)
A Town Called Hell (A Town Called Bastard) (Parrish) (as town priest)
Young Winston (Attenborough) (as Lord Randolph Churchill)
A Reflection of Fear (Labyrinth; Autumn Child) (Fraker) (as Michael); The Hireling (Bridges) (as Steven Leadbetter); The Sting (George Roy Hill) (as Doyle Lonnegan)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Sargent) (as Blue)
Jaws (Spielberg) (as Quint); Der Richter und sein Henker (Murder on the Bridge; End of the Game) (Schell) (as Richard Gastmann)
Robin and Marion (Lester) (as Sheriff of Nottingham); Swashbuckler (The Scarlet Buccaneer) (Goldstone) (as Ned Lynch); Diamonds (Golan) (as Charles/Earl Hodgson)
Black Sunday (Frankenheimer) (as Kabakov); The Deep (Yates) (as Romer Treece)
Force Ten from Navarone (Hamilton) (as Mallory)
Avalanche Express (Robson) (as Marenkov)
By SHAW: books—
The Hiding Place (novel), London, 1959.
The Sun Doctor (novel), London, 1961.
The Flag (novel), London, 1965.
The Man in the Glass Booth (play), London, 1967 (also novel version, 1967).
A Card from Morocco (novel), New York, 1969.
Cato Street (play), London, 1972.
By SHAW: articles—
"Running Figure in Landscape," interview with A. Guerin and H. Grossman, in Show (Hollywood), January 1970.
"Robert Shaw: No More Food for Fish," interview with B. Drew, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1977.
On SHAW: books—
Carmean, Karen, and Georg Gaston, Robert Shaw: More than a Life, Lanham, Maryland, 1993.
French, John, Robert Shaw: The Price of Success, London, 1993.
On SHAW: articles—
Current Biography 1968, New York, 1968.
Obituary, in Washington Post, 29 August 1978.
Thomson, David, "Ryan and Shaw," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1994.
Murphy, Robert, "Unfashionably Macho," in Sight & Sound (London), March 1994.
Stars (Mariembourg), Autumn 1994.
Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 22 June 1996.
* * *
At the time Robert Shaw died of a heart attack in 1978, his status as a bona fide movie star was still in its infancy. But this late recognition was preceded by a long and memorable career as a character actor and villain. His classical training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art interested him in writing as well as acting. Shaw was a playwright, scenarist, and award-winning novelist, bringing a literate and literary sensibility to his screen acting.
But it was the other side of Shaw's personality—that of an extremely competitive, quick-tempered, greedy man whose infidelities resulted in his first and second wives each giving birth to one of his children within a five-week span, and led his second wife, the actress Mary Ure, and mother of four of his ten children to suicide—that provided the raw material for his initial film image. Built on a foundation of harnessed anger, Shaw's image was cemented through numerous performances in character roles and as arch-villains. Most notable of these were his roles as Red Grant, stalking James Bond and sporting outrageously dyed blond hair, in From Russia with Love; Lord Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston Churchill, in Attenborough's Young Winston; and perhaps the role that best-suited the dark side of Shaw's psyche, King Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons, for which, appropriately enough, he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
The two films most responsible for altering Shaw's career were The Sting and Jaws. In co-starring roles he fixed himself indelibly in the public eye and secured his status as a leading man. This new position however, was unfortunately brief. The few films that followed granted him top-billing but little else in terms of popular or critical acceptance. Had he lived, he might have been able to create a leading man as colorful, memorable, or dynamic as his best villains. His failed attempts at heroic stardom seem to indicate that Shaw's particular brand of blustery ferocity was best utilized in support of, or in opposition to, the protagonist of a film.
—Bill Wine, updated by David E. Salamie