Early Years: California, New York, and Cleveland
High School Diploma
Chaffey Union High School
June 8, 1933
The Shaw Papers contain Shaw’s high school diploma, seen here, as well as a program for the commencement ceremony. Shaw gave a speech modestly entitled “Achieving World Peace.” The program also includes several choral numbers, directed by Florence Blakeslee. Presumably Shaw took part in these, but the program doesn’t identify the members of the chorus.
Signed photograph of Shaw
Shaw’s career took off like a rocket in the early 1940s. He founded the Collegiate Chorale in late 1941, and within just a few short years, he was filling major concert halls, getting rave reviews in leading newspapers, commissioning new works from the likes of Paul Hindemith and Aaron Copland, preparing choruses for Arturo Toscanini, and teaching at Juilliard and Tanglewood. He accomplished most of these things before he turned thirty, in spite of his own rather sparse musical education.
March 16, 1944
Robert Shaw’s letters to his choruses were famous. Many of them appear to have been written immediately after evening rehearsals—one presumes that adrenaline left over from the rehearsal made it impossible for him to fall asleep right away, so instead he stayed up and put his thoughts down on paper. Shaw’s chorus letters can include almost anything: a review of the latest rehearsal (full of praise, concern, or anger, depending on the circumstances), exhortations to do better, scholarly or philosophical ruminations on the pieces being performed, suitable vocal exercises or pronunciation instructions, logistical arrangements, governance policies, holiday greetings, humorous poems, and so on. In an era before E-mail (and, in the early part of Shaw’s career, before the photocopy machine), simply reproducing and distributing these weekly letters to as many as 200 singers must have been back-breaking task. Fortunately, Shaw was always blessed with loyal and industrious assistants.
In his letter to the Collegiate Chorale on March 16, 1944, shown here, Shaw passionately urges his singers to work harder and show greater commitment. He also offers an array of conventional but practical suggestions, such as marking up the music and watching the conductor. The unusual salutation, “Fellow Quarter-to-Eighters,” refers to his letter of February 10, 1944 (supplemented, one suspects, by spoken comments), which complained at length about singers who habitually arrived at rehearsal just moments before the designated starting time of 8:00 PM. Because it then took them several minutes to greet their friends, find their places, and take out their music, this near-tardiness effectively wasted a significant amount of precious rehearsal time. Consequently, Shaw began insisting that they arrive at 7:45, so that they would be ready to start singing on the dot of 8:00. Issues of attendance and promptness are still a challenge to choral conductors in the 21st century.
Photograph of Shaw with Paul Hindemith
In 1939, Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) left Nazi Germany for Switzerland, and in 1940 he moved to the United States and began his affiliation with the Yale School of Music. First he gave a series of lectures; this led to a visiting professorship, and finally in 1941 he received a permanent post. He remained on the Yale faculty until 1953, when he returned to Switzerland. Hindemith was widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest composers, so his appointment was a coup for Yale. Over the next dozen years, many brilliant young musicians came to Yale to study with him.
In December 1945, Robert Shaw and the Collegiate Chorale invited Hindemith to compose a major work. Hindemith decided to set When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard Bloom’d, the poem Walt Whitman had written in memory of President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated in the final days of the Civil War. It had great resonance for Hindemith (who became a U.S. citizen in January 1946) and for many of his listeners as well, because the United States had just lost another wartime president; Franklin Roosevelt had died in April 1945, not long before the end of World War II.
Shaw and the Collegiate Chorale gave the world premiere in New York on May 14, 1946. Fifty years later, Shaw conducted Lilacs at Yale, with the Yale Philharmonia Orchestra and the combined forces of the Yale Camerata, the Yale Glee Club, and the New Haven Chorale.
The present exhibit contains only materials from the Robert Shaw Papers, but Hindemith’s manuscript for Lilacs also belongs to the Gilmore Music Library, as part of the Paul Hindemith Collection.
Postcard from Lukas Foss
July 29, 1955
The Shaw Papers contain eight boxes of correspondence. Needless to say, many eminent musicians are represented. The composer, conductor, and pianist Lukas Foss (1922–2009) sent this clever postcard to Shaw in 1955. The music is the beginning of the J.S. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052. “Lang” is presumably Paul Henry Lang (1901-1991), the eminent musicology professor at Columbia. Apparently Lang had questioned the concerto’s authenticity, but modern scholars seem convinced that Bach was indeed the composer. Foss’s words describing the situation fit Bach’s melody perfectly.
Rubber stamp of Shaw’s signature
Shaw was involved in a multitude of things. In his day to day activities, he relied heavily on the assistance of his staff, particularly Edna-Lea (“Eddie”) Burress and Nola Frink. As this rubber stamp shows, he did not personally sign everything that went out under his name.
Photograph of Shaw
with George Szell and Louis Lane
Late 1950s or early 1960s
Despite his remarkable talents, Shaw was always keenly aware that he lacked traditional academic training in music, and he strove mightily to overcome his weaknesses. In the mid-1940s, he undertook a rigorous program of study with Julius Herford (1901–1981). Though he was a world-renowned choral conductor by the time he was thirty, Shaw lacked experience in orchestral conducting, so he took lessons with Pierre Monteux and Artur Rodzinski, and he became the music director of the San Diego Symphony (at a time when San Diego was not yet a major city). From 1956 to 1967, he served (along with Louis Lane) as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra under the great George Szell (1897–1970). Szell was known for his peerless musicianship and also for his intimidating personality, and both he and Shaw construed his employment as a sort of apprenticeship. The hierarchical nature of their relationship can be seen in their letters, several of which begin “Dear Bob” or “Dear Mr. Szell.” By 1967, Shaw finally felt confident enough in his powers to accept an appointment as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences
Best Classical Peformance, Choral
Bach, B-Minor Mass
Robert Shaw Chorale
From the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, Shaw was best known for his work with the Robert Shaw Chorale. The Chorale was a relatively small professional chorus that had no home base and no institutional affiliation. It did countless concert tours and recording projects, and it was wildly successful at both.
Shaw received many awards and honors, including more than a dozen Grammy Awards. The Grammy displayed here, for his performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, was his first. A year later, the same Mass was the Chorale’s signature piece in its 1962 tour of the USSR, even though the Soviet authorities were less than enthusiastic about sacred music. Religion was not the only delicate issue, though; Shaw and his Chorale were in the Soviet Union at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Shaw Papers contain several folders of materials pertaining to this tour.
Letter from Charles Schulz
October 18, 1967
Not all of Shaw’s correspondence is from musicians. This letter is from Charles M. Schulz (1922–2000), the creator of the comic strip Peanuts.