Later Years: Atlanta
Photograph of Shaw
When Shaw took over in 1967, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was a semi-professional regional orchestra. Within just a few years, Shaw raised its standards dramatically, turning the ASO into a world-class ensemble. And needless to say, the ASO Chorus gained special renown with Shaw at its head. But those years were not all triumphs and smiles.
Shaw had to dismiss several long-serving members of the orchestra because they simply were not good enough. Decades later, the letters he wrote to them are still painful to read.
Some of Shaw’s programming choices, such as works by Charles Ives and Edgard Varèse, were too radical for the tastes of certain board members and subscribers, and they urged Shaw to avoid that sort of music. Shaw was furious. He threatened to resign, and his supporters mounted a very public “Keep Shaw” campaign, asking donors to send their contributions to an escrow fund in Shaw’s own name instead of to the ASO until the situation was resolved. Shaw’s opponents backed down, and he remained Music Director until his retirement in 1988.
Letter from Coretta Scott King
November 10, 1967
The mid-1960s were a time of rapid change in Atlanta. The formerly sleepy, segregated, southern town strove to transform itself into a cosmopolitan metropolis, billing itself as “the city too busy to hate.” Atlanta gained major league franchises in baseball and football at this time, and Robert Shaw became the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Shaw had a mandate to upgrade the quality of the ASO. He also sought to make the orchestra and its audience more diverse. One of his allies in that task was another prominent Atlantan, Coretta Scott King (1927–2006), the wife of Martin Luther King, Jr. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, Mrs. King stood at the intersection between the civil rights movement and the classical music world. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, only a year after Shaw’s arrival in Atlanta, but Mrs. King and Shaw had a friendly relationship for decades.
Die Schöpfung [The Creation]
(New York: Kalmus, no date)
Nearly half of the Robert Shaw Papers consist of annotated scores. Shaw marked up his scores in great detail. Over the course of his long career, he conducted certain works many times. When he returned to a piece he had performed previously, he did not take the path of least resistance and simply pull out his old score. Instead, he bought a new score, and marked it up from scratch. Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (The Creation, in English) is a typical example. We have three orchestral scores, ten complete or partial piano-vocal scores, and two sets of parts. This abundance of material is a treasure trove for conductors and scholars interested in studying Shaw’s interpretations and how they evolved.
Shaw marked up his scores with black, red, blue, and green pencils. He also used Post-It notes.
Translated by Robert Shaw & Alice Parker
[(New York: Lawson-Gould, c1957)]
This piano-vocal score of Haydn’s The Creation is edited and translated by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker. Parker, a composer, arranger, and conductor, studied with Shaw at Juilliard in the 1940s, and collaborated with him on numerous folk song arrangements and other works, mainly in the era of the Robert Shaw Chorale in the 1950s and ’60s. The Yale Glee Club is performing the Shaw-Parker edition of The Creation on April 9 at 7:30 PM in Woolsey Hall.
For choral-orchestral works such as The Creation, Shaw’s papers usually contain both full orchestral scores (for Shaw’s own use as a conductor) and piano-vocal scores (for the singers, and perhaps for a rehearsal accompanist). The markings in the piano-vocal scores are not necessarily in Shaw’s own hand, but they do reflect his interpretation. When Shaw guest conducted, his assistant would send a marked-up piano-vocal score to the chorus and instruct them to copy the markings into their own scores.
Concert program for The Creation
performed by Robert Shaw and
the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Inscribed by President Jimmy Carter
The Shaw Papers contain extensive correspondence with his fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter. Shaw wrote a letter expressing his support for Carter’s presidential candidacy when Carter was still considered a long shot. After Carter was elected, he invited Shaw and his family to the White House. Perhaps more than any other president in recent decades, Carter loves classical music. This inscribed program testifies to his esteem for Shaw.
Samuel Simons Sanford Medal
Yale School of Music
April 11, 1981
Shaw was neither a student nor a professor at Yale, but he had many connections to the university. He conducted at Yale several times. He received the Sanford Medal in 1981 and an honorary degree in 1998. His son Thomas was a member of the Class of 1999, and Shaw died while he was in New Haven to attend a play directed by Thomas.
Robert Blocker, Dean of the Yale School of Music, was friends with Shaw for many years and was instrumental in bringing the Shaw Papers to Yale. Blocker edited an anthology of Shaw’s writings, The Robert Shaw Reader (New Haven: Yale University Press, c2004).
“The Conservative Arts”
Lecture at Memorial Church,
November 9, 1981
Shaw was often called upon to give lectures, commencement addresses, and sermons. Because he was so busy as a performing musician, he tended to use just a few speeches over and over again. His favorite speech was “The Conservative Arts”; the Shaw Papers contain no fewer than twelve versions, spanning the years from 1963 to 1998. Each version begins with introductory remarks tailored to his audience, but the remainder of the speech was largely the same from one year to the next. The word “conservative” in the title doesn’t refer to politics; rather, Shaw is vigorously defending the value of preserving our cultural heritage. “What do the liberal creative arts conserve?” he asks, and then he answers: “Nothing—but humanity.”
The Harvard version of this speech, displayed here, begins with a salutation to the hosts, the Rev. Peter Gomes of Memorial Church, and Prof. Elliot Forbes of the Music Department. Forbes was the former conductor of the Harvard Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society. This version of the speech has been published in The Robert Shaw Reader, edited by Robert Blocker.
August 5, 1992
Shaw was meticulous in his attention to details of all kinds, including the spatial arrangement of his choruses. Some of his choral rosters even specify the height of each singer. In 1992, Shaw assembled an elite chorus—most of the members were choral conductors themselves—for a series of concerts in small churches across France. He obtained floor plans for all the churches, and drew up separate seating charts for each one, so the configuration of the chorus would always suit the acoustical properties of the space.
from Ann Howard Jones
to Nola Frink
November 4, 1996
In addition to his work with the Collegiate Chorale, the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Atlanta Symphony, Shaw had hundreds of guest-conducting engagements, many of them at universities. Shaw’s assistant, Nola Frink, usually sent an annotated score to the local conductor, who would then train the chorus in Shaw’s interpretation. Shaw himself arrived late in the process, for a few days of intensive rehearsals followed by the concert, which was often a life-changing experience for the singers. These guest-conducting gigs are exhaustively documented in the Shaw Papers; they involved not only musical matters, but also a daunting array of logistical questions.
The letter displayed here, associated with a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem at Boston University, is typical. Ann Howard Jones, the choral director at BU, was superbly qualified to prepare her chorus for Shaw; she had been assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus as well as several of Shaw’s choral institutes. In 2011 she received the Robert Shaw Award from the American Choral Directors Association. On April 9 at 3:30 PM in Battell Chapel, she will give a lecture-demonstration on Shaw’s rehearsal techniques.
Shaw conducted with various types of batons. Sometimes he even wrapped rubber bands around the handle, apparently to improve his grip.
Photograph of Shaw
In 1988 Shaw gave up his position as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony, but he did not retire from conducting. He continued to conduct the ASO from time to time in his position as Music Director Emeritus. He led a series of choral conducting institutes in Atlanta, New York, and France, training a new generation of conductors and giving numerous concerts. And he had dozens of guest-conducting engagements, including one at Yale in 1996. But as the 1990s progressed, Shaw had to cancel many of these engagements—first because of the illness and death of his beloved wife Caroline, and later because of his own health problems. He died in New Haven on January 25, 1999.
Seventeen years after his passing, Shaw is still a towering figure in the world of choral music. Most American choral musicians over a certain age seem to have worked with him or sung for him, and their younger counterparts are keenly aware of his recordings and his place in history. Shaw’s papers are a cornerstone of the Gilmore Music Library. Conductors and musicologists from around the country and around the world come to Yale to study his scores, his life, and his legacy.