Robert Shaw (conductor)

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Robert Shaw

Robert Lawson Shaw (30 April 1916 25 January 1999) was an American conductor most famous for his work with his namesake Chorale, with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. [1] He was known for drawing public attention to choral music through his wide ranging influences and mentoring of younger conductors, the high standard of his recordings, his support for racial integration in his choruses, [2] and his support for modern music, winning many awards throughout his career.

Conducting directing a musical performance by way of visible gestures

Conducting is the art of directing a musical performance, such as an orchestral or choral concert. It has been defined as "the art of directing the simultaneous performance of several players or singers by the use of gesture." The primary duties of the conductor are to interpret the score in a way which reflects the specific indications in that score, set the tempo, ensure correct entries by ensemble members, and "shape" the phrasing where appropriate. Conductors communicate with their musicians primarily through hand gestures, usually with the aid of a baton, and may use other gestures or signals such as eye contact. A conductor usually supplements their direction with verbal instructions to their musicians in rehearsal.

The Robert Shaw Chorale was a renowned professional choir founded in New York City in 1948 by Robert Shaw, a Californian who had been drafted out of college a decade earlier by Fred Waring to conduct his glee club in radio broadcasts. The Chorale enjoyed an intermittent existence, being formed and re-formed on an ad hoc basis for national and international tours and several RCA Victor recordings, its personnel count ranging from around thirty to around sixty voices depending on repertoire requirements. The Chorale ceased operations permanently in 1965, shortly before Shaw assumed the post of Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. During its existence the Robert Shaw Chorale became arguably the best-known and most widely respected professional choral organization in the United States, with repertoire ranging from J.S. Bach to folk music and Broadway theatre tunes. The group's album recording "Christmas Hymns And Carols" released in November 1957 was certified gold in August 1964 by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). This recording peaked at #5 on Billboard's Top Pop Album Chart. The group made several tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department as part of a cultural exchange program, including 21 European and Mid-eastern countries in 1956; South America; and in 1962, a seven-week tour of Russia.

Cleveland Orchestra American symphony orchestra in Cleveland, OH

The Cleveland Orchestra, based in Cleveland, is one of the five American orchestras informally referred to as the "Big Five". Founded in 1918 by the pianist and impresario Adella Prentiss Hughes, the orchestra plays most of its concerts at Severance Hall. As of 2017, the incumbent music director is Franz Welser-Möst.



Early life

Shaw was born in Red Bluff, California. [2] His father, Rev. Shirley R. Shaw, [3] was a minister, and his mother was a concert singer. [4] He had four siblings, one of whom was singer Hollace Shaw. [5] He graduated from Pomona College in the class of 1938. Shortly afterward, Shaw was hired by popular band leader Fred Waring to recruit and train a glee club that would sing with the band.

Red Bluff, California City in California, United States

Red Bluff is a city in and the county seat of Tehama County, California, United States. The population was 14,076 at the 2010 census, up from 13,147 at the 2000 census.

Hollace Shaw coloratura soprano

Hollace Shaw was a coloratura soprano who performed on old-time radio and on the stage.

Pomona College private liberal arts college in Claremont, California, USA

Pomona College is a private liberal arts college in Claremont, California. It was founded in 1887 by a group of Congregationalists who wanted to recreate a "college of the New England type" in Southern California, and in the 1920s, it became the founding member of the Claremont Colleges consortium.


In 1941, Shaw founded the Collegiate Chorale, a group notable in its day for its racial integration. [2] In 1948, the group performed Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with the NBC Symphony and Arturo Toscanini, who famously remarked, "In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for." [6] Shaw continued to prepare choirs for Toscanini until March 1954, when they sang in Te Deum by Verdi and the prologue to Mefistofele by Boito. Shaw's choirs participated in the NBC broadcast performances of three Verdi operas: Aida , Falstaff and A Masked Ball , all conducted by Toscanini, with soprano Herva Nelli. They can be seen on the home videos of the telecasts of Aida (from 1949) and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (from April 1948), also conducted by Toscanini. Shaw himself took a bow at the end of the Beethoven telecast.

Racial integration Process of ending racial segregation

Racial integration, or simply integration, includes desegregation. In addition to desegregation, integration includes goals such as leveling barriers to association, creating equal opportunity regardless of race, and the development of a culture that draws on diverse traditions, rather than merely bringing a racial minority into the majority culture. Desegregation is largely a legal matter, integration largely a social one.

Ludwig van Beethoven 18th and 19th-century German classical and romantic composer

Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist. A crucial figure in the transition between the classical and romantic eras in classical music, he remains one of the most recognized and influential musicians of this period, and is considered to be one of the greatest composers of all time.

Symphony No. 9 (Beethoven) symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven

The Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, also known as Beethoven's 9th, is the final complete symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, composed between 1822 and 1824. It was first performed in Vienna on 7 May 1824. One of the best-known works in common practice music, it is regarded by many critics and musicologists as one of Beethoven's greatest works and one of the supreme achievements in the history of western music. In the 2010s, it stands as one of the most performed symphonies in the world.

External audio
Nuvola apps arts.svg You may hear Robert Shaw conducting Johann Sebastian Bach's Magnificat in D major, BWV 243 with the RCA Victor Orchestra in 1947 Here on

Shaw was also Charles F. Shaw's second cousin and often vacationed at his winery in Napa Valley. He went on to found the Robert Shaw Chorale in 1948, a group which produced numerous recordings on RCA Victor up until his appointment in Atlanta. The Chorale visited 30 countries in tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Shaw was named music director of the San Diego Symphony in 1953 and served in that post for four years. Only after his San Diego tenure did he become an apprentice again, studying the art of conducting with George Szell and serving as his assistant at the Cleveland Orchestra for eleven seasons. He also took over the fledgling Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and fine-tuned it into one of the finest all-volunteer choral ensembles sponsored by an American symphony orchestra. While in Cleveland, Shaw was also the choral director at the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland where he led a community music program.

Charles F. Shaw is an American businessman and former winery owner whose name is used for Charles Shaw wine, a brand of inexpensive table wines.

United States Department of State United States federal executive department responsible for foreign affairs

The United States Department of State (DOS), commonly referred to as the State Department, is a federal executive department that is equivalent to the foreign ministry of other countries, advising the U.S. President on foreign policy and conducting international relations. It was established in 1789 as the nation's first executive department.

San Diego Symphony symphonic orchestra based in San Diego, California, United States

The San Diego Symphony is an American symphony orchestra, based in San Diego, California. The orchestra is resident at Copley Symphony Hall. The orchestra also serves as the orchestra for San Diego Opera.

From 1967 to 1988 Shaw was music director and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. [7] In 1970, he founded the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and worked to recreate the success he had had for Cleveland in preparing them for performances and recordings with their namesake symphony orchestra.

A music director, musical director, or director of music is the person responsible for the musical aspects of a performance, production, or organization, for example the artistic director and usually chief conductor of an orchestra or concert band, the director of music of a film, the director of music at a radio station, the person in charge of musical activities or the head of the music department in a school, the coordinator of the musical ensembles in a university, college, or institution, the head bandmaster of a military band, the head organist and choirmaster of a church, or an organist and master of the choristers.

On 30 April 1972, Shaw conducted a massed 640 voice chorus made up of auditioned university choirs from 16 different countries invited to the Third International Choral Festival [8] [9] to perform at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York after a two week concert tour of USA university campuses. A recording was made of the festival concert. [10] During their tour, on the eve of the breaking of the Watergate Scandal, the choirs also performed before First Lady Pat Nixon, [11] [12] at the White House, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the United Nations.

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Performing arts venue in New York City

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is a 16.3-acre (6.6-hectare) complex of buildings in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the borough of Manhattan in New York City. It hosts many notable performing arts organizations, which are nationally and internationally renowned, including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera.

First Lady of the United States Hostess of the White House, usually the wife of the President of the United States

The First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) is the title held by the hostess of the White House, usually the wife of the President of the United States, concurrent with the President's term in office. Although the First Lady's role has never been codified or officially defined, she figures prominently in the political and social life of the nation. Since the early 20th century, the First Lady has been assisted by official staff, now known as the Office of the First Lady and headquartered in the East Wing of the White House.

Pat Nixon First Lady of the United States; wife of 37th United States President Richard Nixon

Thelma Catherine "Pat" Nixon, also commonly known as Patricia Nixon, was an American educator and the wife of Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States. During her more than 30 years in public life, she served as both the Second (1953–1961) and First Lady of the United States (1969–1974).

After stepping down from his Atlanta post in 1988, Shaw continued to conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as its Music Director Emeritus and Conductor Laureate, was a regular guest conductor with other orchestras including Cleveland, and taught in a series of summer festivals and week-long Carnegie Hall workshops for choral conductors and singers. He died in 1999, in New Haven, Connecticut following a stroke, aged 82. [2]


During his long career, Shaw drew attention to choral music and came to be considered the "dean" of American choral conductors, mentoring a number of younger conductors—including Jameson Marvin, Margaret Hillis, Maurice Casey, Ken Clinton, Donald Neuen, Ann Howard Jones, and current Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Chamber Chorus director Norman Mackenzie — and inspiring thousands of singers with whom he worked around the United States. His work set new choral standards in the United States, and many of his recordings are considered benchmarks for choral singing. [13]

Although his formative years and much of his work occurred before the rise of mainstream interest in informed historic performance practice, his recordings, reflecting his insistence that clearly projected texts serve as the foundation for musical interpretation, do not sound dated in comparison to more modern efforts by frequently smaller forces. He created techniques and approaches still in use today. [14] [15]

Shaw was a champion of modern music from the beginning of his career. He commissioned a requiem for Franklin D. Roosevelt from the newly naturalized German-born composer Paul Hindemith, who responded with When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd , a setting of Walt Whitman's poem commemorating the death of Abraham Lincoln. Shaw led the premiere of the work in 1946 with the Collegiate Chorale and continued to champion the work well into the last decade of his life; [16] in 1996 he conducted a 50th anniversary performance at Yale University, where Hindemith was a professor when he wrote the work. In 1998 Yale also awarded Shaw an honorary doctorate. He was also a recipient of Yale's Sanford Medal. [17] Shaw also received the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit in honor of his vast influence on male choral music. [18] He was a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity. [19]


External audio
Nuvola apps arts.svg You may hear Robert Shaw conducting Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor with the RCA Victor Orchestra in 1947 Here on

Although noted in classical repertoire, Shaw hardly limited himself to that genre. The 104 recording credits on his discography [20] also include recordings of sea shanties, glee club songs, sacred music and spirituals, musical theater numbers, Irish folk tunes, and, most notably, Christmas albums that have remained bestsellers ever since their release. Under Shaw, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra made its first recordings, beginning with a 2-LP album set called Nativity in 1976, based on the annual Christmas concerts that Shaw performed in Atlanta beginning in 1970. [21] For Telarc he recorded several digital remakes of the Christmas albums he had previously recorded for RCA Victor, including The Many Moods of Christmas . Shaw collaborated with noted choral composer and conductor Alice Parker (a former student of Shaw's at the Juilliard School) on arrangements of folksongs, hymns, spirituals, and Christmas music that remain popular with choruses today.

Shaw recorded for a variety of labels, beginning with a single record for American Decca and numerous releases on RCA Victor during the 78 rpm era. During the 1950s and 1960s, Shaw and his Chorale made many LP's for RCA Victor Red Seal Records. From 1977 onward, most of his recordings appeared on the Telarc label. For that company he led not only the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus but also the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, which drew its personnel largely from the Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus, and the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, a group assembled for Shaw's summer choral workshops in France. His last recording was for Telarc of Dvořák's Stabat Mater with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, chorus, and soloists.

Shaw recorded many of the great choral-orchestral works more than once, and his performances of Handel's Messiah , J.S. Bach's Mass in B minor , Beethoven's Missa Solemnis , Orff's Carmina Burana , Verdi's Requiem , and other similar masterworks remain highly regarded. In a move toward historically informed performance, Shaw's first recording of Messiah, in 1966, used a chorus of only thirty-one singers.


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  1. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 'Robert Shaw: American conductor'. Encyclopædia Britannica.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Oestreich, James R. (26 January 1999). ‘Robert Shaw, Choral and Orchestral Leader, Is Dead at 82‘. New York Times . (USA).
  3. "Hollace Shaw Wins Radio Talent Contest". Chino Champion. California, Chino. October 2, 1936. p. 1. Retrieved August 20, 2016 via Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
  4. "Soprano will be heard at Claremont Tuesday". The San Bernardino County Sun. California, San Bernardino. July 21, 1950. p. 13. Retrieved August 20, 2016 via Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
  5. Blanck, Katherine (August 27, 1941). "Vivian's Song Has A Purpose in Life". The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. New York, Brooklyn. p. 11. Retrieved August 20, 2016 via Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
  6. Joseph A. Mussulman (1979). Dear People...Robert Shaw, Hinshaw Music, Inc. ISBN   0-937276-18-9
  7. Nick Jones (1999), The Legacy of Robert Shaw, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra website,
  8. Shaw, Robert (6 April-2 May 1972). The third Lincoln Center International Choral Festival. Publisher: LCS 1972 Lincoln Center
  9. Sharp, Tim and Prucha, Christina. (23 February 2009). Arcadia Publishing. Page 83. Images of America. Robert Shaw. American Choral Directors Association. ISBN   9781439621127. (Charleston SC, Chicago IL, Portsmouth NH, San Francisco CA, USA).
  10. Box 216 Folder 320 (requires login). (1972). Robert Shaw repository’. Yale University. (USA).
  11. Nixon, Pat. First Lady of the United States. (21 April 1972). Diary (Box 24): "First Lady's Press Office: 4/21/72 Mrs. Nixon – 3rd Intn’l Choral Festival Reception". Press Office of the First Lady of the United States. Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. (USA)
  12. (7 April 1972). 'On The Go'. Page 7C. Democrat and Chronicle . (Rochester, New York, USA).
  13. Robert Shaw. Telarc International Corporation. (Cleveland,USA)
  14. Page, Tim. (26 January 1999). The Harmonious Life of Robert bert Shaw. Washington Post. (USA).
  15. The Shaw Story. ‘Robert Shaw the Film’ website.
  16. Sullivan, Jack (1999-05-16). "American Composer's Orchestra, May 16, 1999: Whitman and Music".
  17. "Passing of a musical giant".
  18. "The University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit Recipients".
  19. Delta Omicron Archived 2010-01-27 at the Wayback Machine
  20. 'The Robert Shaw Chorale'. Discogs.
  21. "The Legacy of Robert Shaw - Atlanta Symphony Orchestra".
  22. "Robert Shaw". Telarc. Archived from the original on 2007-03-27. Retrieved 2007-09-19.
  23. website, Robert Shaw, "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-12-11. Retrieved 2006-12-02.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
Preceded by
Henry Sopkin
Music Directors, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Succeeded by
Yoel Levi