Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Robert Shaw Reader

The Robert Shaw Reader

Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 480
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Robert Shaw Reader
    Book Description:

    Robert Shaw is considered to be the most influential choral conductor in American history. This is the first collection of his letters and notes about music ever published-at another time, it is the book Shaw would have written himself.The letters are an invigorating mix of music history and analysis, philosophy, inspiration, and practical advice. Shaw examines technique, but only as a means to an end-he moves beyond that, delving into the essence of what music is and what it has to say to us. The heart of the book is composed of Shaw's previously unpublished notes on fifteen major choral works, ranging from Bach's B Minor Mass to Stravinsky'sSymphony of Psalms.Often inspiring and sometime hilarious, these writings reveal the full breadth of Shaw's knowledge, intensity, and humor.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12864-2
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Robert Blocker
    (pp. ix-2)
    Tim Page

    Over the course of his long career, Robert Shaw must have raised more than a million voices in song—voices young and old, trained and untrained, in classrooms, churches, and concert halls across the country. He was equally at home with spirituals and symphonies, with Stephen Foster melodies and Paul Hindemith premieres, all of which he conducted with the same inspired—and inspirational—energy.

    When Shaw was on the podium, he came across as somebody who had discovered exactly what he was put on the planet to do and was doing exactly that. With a motion of his hand, he...

    (pp. 3-46)

    March 4, 1964

    Half-ideas are transient-shaped

    Or else they must dissolve somehow each into each.

    If only they would stand completely still

    Until one found the words their size.

    “I see, your measurements are thus and thus –

    That’s clear enough.”

    You inventory your entire stock

    “Now this should fit”—and turn to find

    It really doesn’t fit at all.

    You have a cubed suit

    For a sphered thought.

    You were sure that thought had corners.

    I tried to get down on paper some of the things that are jamming my mind with reference to music and the spiritual qualities.


    (pp. 47-50)

    Alternating between the whimsical, the poetic, the pedantic, the preachy and the profound, these observations and reflections document the continuity of Shaw’s work in Atlanta, and they provide a near codifying of his attempt to address his “greatest challenge,” choral enunciation. The letters also point to the elemental truth that Shaw was first and foremost a teacher—a mentor anxious to uncover new layers of artistic, musical, and textual insight, not in order to possess them but eagerly, emphatically to pass them along to his choral charges.

    These passages do not reflect a complete picture of his rehearsal methodology; there...

    (pp. 51-59)

    September 13, 1978

    Bruder und Schwester

    Let’s talk first about rehearsal methods.

    Theoretically, it seems to me, choral rehearsals should have two major premises:

    1. Save the human voice! Avoid wear and waste of singers’ “gold” when learning notes; invent devices which teach pitch, rhythm and text with a minimum of vocal effort.

    2. Use devices which make it impossible not to hear, recognize—and correct—errors of pitch, rhythm and text. ( – Like counting/singing or nonsense syllables.) Stated in flat-out technical terms, there are only five fundamentals of good (choral) singing: the proper pitch (1) – sung at precisely the...

    (pp. 60-81)

    September 16, 1981


    Thoughts on the rehearsalWarm-Up

    Things itshould notbe:

    1. It should not be a voice lesson: Voices are as unique as the people they inhabit. What’s effective for one person may be a waste of time or possibly even injurious to another. Only the skilled teacher, working privately over a considerable period of time, is in a position to build or aid an effective vocal technique.

    2. It should not be long: Too lengthy a warm-up will put the emphasis on the choral sound rather than the repertoire. Choral disciplines (intonation, color, dynamics, rhythm...

    (pp. 82-95)

    February 16, 1968

    Years ago, before touring had taught me differently, I used to wonder how one could keep a performance fresh night after night for seventy or a hundred nights in a row. The answer is, of course, that great music feeds back more than it takes. First performances are the things to dread, not the third or the ninetieth or the one-hundred-and-fiftieth.

    Unless one has had this experience, I doubt that it can be understood. Part of the gain, obviously, is simple security. One knows what notes are next; there is no stumbling or surprise. Added to that...

    (pp. 96-118)

    May 13, 1987


    The most frustrating part of any choral rehearsal (for this conductor) is that which has to deal with the disciplines of choral enunciation—and, in particular, those occasions when the language is English.

    Recall that our basic principles are only two:

    1. Every sound of every syllable must be phonated, and

    2. Each sound must be allotted a metric proportion or instant.

    Except in extremely rare instances (Gilbert and Sullivan “patter” songs, for example) the tempos and proportions normal to conversation and spoken language simply never appear in a musical setting.

    Music imposes its own proportions...

    (pp. 119-334)

    February 9, 1993


    The economic difficulties of maintaining the traditional American symphony orchestra and its traditional repertoire lead me from time to time to question my tenure as music director as being much too conservative and tradition-bound.

    My rationale in the beginning was that if one was intent upon building a symphony orchestra, its disciplines had to be built upon late 18th century and early 19th century classicism and late 19th century “classic” romanticism. Initially, also, since The South historically had a very meager exposure to fine symphonic repertoire—in contrast to its literary heritage—it was clear that...

    (pp. 335-412)

    February 14, 1955

    Speech delivered at MTNA National Convention in St. Louis entitled “Music Is Order” Printed in September– October 1995 issue ofAmerican Music Teachermagazine

    Mr. Stout and Members of the ConventionMusicians, Teachers and Friends(I hope, for all our sakes, that these terms are not mutually exclusive):

    The Gold Room is not completely unfamiliar to me. I must plead guilty to having been here once before some ten years ago under similar circumstances, and to having contributed at that time, in the carefree folly of youth, to its slide from its nominal standard.

    I couldn’t tell...

    (pp. 413-416)

    As public figures, conductors celebrate the rituals of life for communities, cities, regions, and in some instances the nation. The diverse plethora of such occasions requires a compassionate heart and a breadth of understanding. Shaw had both, and these qualities were further enhanced by a compelling oratorical voice. Always present was his innate sense of timing.

    These accounts are representative of hundreds more, and they reflect a public and personal side of a conductor who was physically and emotionally planted in a community. The humility of acknowledging all who made awards possible, of comforting the living while celebrating lives fully...

    (pp. 417-424)

    March 16, 1996

    Remarks for Choral Celebration Concert

    None of the members of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus is paid. They are 100% volunteer—or, as the saying goes,amateur.

    The word “amateur” comes to us through the Latinamo, amoris—the English equivalent of which is L-O-V-E—andam-a-tor:one who loves.

    In any concert season the members of the Chorus devote about 90 evenings a year to rehearsals, performances and recordings. They do this out of love—for the art of music—and its disciplines and joys. – You can imagine what strains that puts upon their everyday professional commitments—...

    (pp. 425-434)

    November 23, 1963

    Remarks preceding Cleveland Orchestra concert

    Certainly in the blackness which engulfs us all, each man is his own small island of grief—inaccessible and mute. One would not invade this privacy. But no public gathering during these hours takes place but in the light of that darkness.

    Days ahead will be full of political appraisal and eulogy—but among those of us engaged in the pursuit of the creative, performing or liberal arts, a special acknowledgement is in order.

    We are accustomed to think of him in terms of abounding physical vitality and humor: a laughing father...

    (pp. 435-444)

    July 21, 1961

    – Flying well below the clouds on the world’s favorite airplane, a friendly, bouncy DC-3 held together by a fresh coat of paint on the inside and riveted aluminum patches on the outside. Two hours from Lansing, Michigan, to Cleveland, Ohio. Two weeks ago by jet it was only seven hours from New York Idlewild to Anchorage, Alaska. BeethovenMissa Solemnisin Alaska (about time for a re-run in Cleveland) and within the past few days two VerdiRequiems, the first at the University of Minnesota and the second last night at Michigan State University. The latter...

  17. VERSE
    (pp. 445-456)

    August 5, 1943

    To Collegiate Chorale

    This should begin with a lot of things all adding up to thanks to Gordon Berger who (I heard clear in California) has done a wonderful job as director of The Collegiate Chorale the past few weeks. People wrote things like “musicianship, authority, modesty, humor”—which certainly indicates a heavy and happy debt of thanks. Very, very.

    – I should waste Sydney’s time with a 6-stencil diary of two weeks in the land of the milked and honeyed!

    So –

    Gather, my children, and don’t be late,

    On next Monday night at precis-e-ly eight,


  18. INDEX
    (pp. 457-465)