The Robert Shaw Reader

The Robert Shaw Reader

by Robert Blocker

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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

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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 The heart of the book is composed of Shaw’s previously unpublished notes on fifteen major choral works, ranging from Bach’s B Minor Mass to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.
Often inspiring and sometime hilarious, these writings reveal the full breadth of Shaw’s knowledge, intensity, and humor.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"I can't remember a time when I didn't know and revere Robert Shaw. The best of 20th century choral musicianship was to be found in him, and I am delighted that he now lives again in these pages for a new generation to discover and enjoy."—Peter J. Gomes, Harvard University

“A significant book—making available in print the musical insights of arguably the preeminent choral conductor America has produced."—Milburn Price, former president of the American Choral Directors Association

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.31(d)

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Yale University Press
Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10454-7

Chapter One
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.

We have, almost from the beginning of the COC, assumed the function-if not the particularized truths-of that relationship, and now with a frightening clarity and in a flood of specific detail I begin to understand that music is spirit. I guess the first Bible verse I learned "by heart" in the Beginner's Class at Sunday School was "God is love." It must have been at least twenty years later that it occurred to me that what it probably meant was "You know what God is-Love." And the same thing happens now with "Music is spirit"-but this time in overwhelming detail.

We began years ago by assuming that song was a story-it had a tale to tell, an argument to deliver, or a mood to convey. Its function was dramatic. Song was drama. Our first understandings of spirit in music were limited then to understandings of the text; and our techniques centered around systems of enunciation and a practical speech discipline, if also text was seen to qualify tone and sonority.

We understood spirit, too, as synonymous with our own corporate enthusiasm for the music we sang. It was very evident in concert performance that here was a group of people who loved to sing together and who somehow believed their song.

But at this point and from this time on the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus begins. I have never felt so sure of anything in my life. The ends for which we have assembled take shape; the pace and manner of their achievement grows more conscious and clear.

I believe that the essential musical properties-harmony, melody, rhythm, tone, and dynamics-under whatever critical microscope-are to be understood finally only as relations of qualities.

I believe that the relation of a note to its octave is the relation of one-ness to two-ness (which it is in terms of vibrations per second) and that at the same time the fact of their recognizable unity is a qualitative symbol knowledgeable only to men's spirits.

I believe that when voices switch functions for even the span of two notes, so that one voice sings what the other sang and what the second sang the first now sings the human spirit is involved. And the fact of a fugue wherein voices propose identity in alteration is a spiritual phenomenon.

I believe that form in music is a symbol of relations and values, not a blueprint of construction technique.

I believe that intervals have quality; that good intonation is the result of sensitivity to truth and untruth in tonality.

I believe that the voice is fantastically responsive to musical understanding, and that in every instance the sense of What must be precedes the How.

And I am no longer so concerned about the inability of any choir (including the COC) to master the long line of a long piece in a single sitting; for there are a hundred miracles in every measure worthy of the whole of a man's understanding.

I believe, then, that spirit in music is not the wholesale emotional orgasm that weeps appropriately in public, but rather the marshalling of one's keenest, most critical intellectual and moral forces to the point of complete consciousness-'til one hears in terms of values and the movements of values, until the most pedestrian minutiae of pitch and rhythm are heard inwardly in relation to adjacent minutiae; and finally in relation to wholes of form, tonality and intent.

I believe that we are only at the beginning. I believe we can scale and direct every rehearsal to this end, and that in those hours will lie the "life we have lost in living-the wisdom we have lost in knowledge-the knowledge we have lost in information."

December 2, 1948

In the last three weeks I've been reminded of the importance of the time-consuming non-musical mechanics of building and maintaining a chorus. Chief case in point would be this business of increasing membership, and the operation is as far removed from the golden glow of art as one could get. You need fifty new members-mostly men; so you send out 1,500 letters with 3,000 announcements knowing a few hundred will find a small response, you send announcements to 7 newspapers knowing 2 or 3 will find space for it, you post 80 or 90 posters understanding that they may be taken down in twenty-four hours; and from all this you get 30 to 40 hours of auditions, of which a fourth to a third are men. During the auditions it seems like it's women, women, and more women; but at the end of the day, you discover you've found 3 baritones and 2 tenors-and it's all worth it. - Because all the noble musical dreams don't make a choir. People make a choir. If you have people, you sing.

On the road this fall, it seems to me that I did my most important work not conducting but during the 3 or 4 hours before every concert setting the stage-moving platforms, improvising ceilings, back-drops and walls, setting up chairs, altering seating arrangements.- More productive, I'd imagine, than dreaming beautiful sounds and admiring the dream.

So also it is with all of us in the Chorale. All of us have unromantic and non-artistic responsibilities, things that have nothing to do with the music-but there's no music if they don't happen. The first one would be the simple legwork of rehearsal attendance. I've known many of our people to come to rehearsal when they couldn't sing a note-laryngitis or something. Well, that makes sense in ways other than the possibility of learning while listening. All of us are disturbed by empty chairs. If the room is packed, we know we're ready for work. At least we have 11 men on the field.

I have an idea also that if, say, even 80% of us were in our seats by 7:30, it would save us close to 30 minutes of rehearsal time. It's not only the time lost before beginning, it's the time half-used trying to get under way. Now, that's an unaesthetic mechanical angle if there ever was one; but I bet there aren't a dozen of us who couldn't be at rehearsal at 7:15 as easily as 7:35. And I know we could get more done in the first 15 minutes of rehearsal under those circumstances than we could in 30-plus at 10:15 or 10:30. Being there, and being a few minutes ahead of time-mechanics and leg-work-but it makes choirs.

Here's another angle. Group sense is a fine thing, and it has a host of implications for choral tone, rhythm, enunciation and intonation. But there's something that's more important. That's individual sense and individual responsibility. I'm speaking musically now. A lot of us relax into our section and into the huge choral sound. That's dangerous. What we need to do is sharpen our own critical individuality: That is, listen each one to himself, each one deciding how intense and controlled his tone is, how secure his rhythm, how precise his articulation. In this respect a group of soloists does make a chorus. If we can arrive at that state within the next two weeks it will be a great concert.

Looking forward to seeing you Saturday, (some) Sunday and Monday. Remember-left-foot, right-foot-be there-and we'll make music.


January 29, 1949

To members of the Juilliard Chorus:

I'm going to try another letter-in an attempt to straighten out some things before Tuesday's rehearsal. It appears to be a dangerous procedure, judging from the reaction to the last one. Anyway, let's dispense with the Juilliard letter-head, and make it person-to-person. If it were possible to write one hundred twenty-two individual letters, that could obviate the mimeographed form. - But it isn't-so this is.

In the first place, I regret greatly my inability to attend Thursday's rehearsal. People sometimes get sick-and I had two days of it.

In the second place, let's review that note of last-week. It said three things: one and obviously, that the Rogers Passion can't be prepared by a "part-time chorus"; two, it said "thanks to all who have been active and regular"; and three, it said that "dilettantes and absentees" might expect "full penalties." Evidently the last line of the letter got no laughs at all.

Now my thinking runs along these lines:

First, I would have expected the majority of people in the chorus to have been pleased and gratified, to have reacted with, "It's about time somebody cracked down on absentees. The habitually absent are the ones who slow down rehearsals, and the piece is certainly tough enough without having to re-rehearse it for those who attend haphazardly."

Second, I admit that I am very much perplexed by the non-professional habits of a large percentage of those enrolled in a presumably professional school. This really is difficult to understand. Digest this fact: there are eight persons in the Juilliard Chorus I know to be qualified for professional work. (There undoubtedly are more, but these I know well; some of them have worked with me professionally for as much as three years.) These eight persons had a total of four unexcused absences for the first semester. One-half [the] absences per person for those who probably have least to gain from rehearsal, who know the work best, and who certainly carry the heaviest vocal load. Not one of these persons was absent from last Thursday's rehearsal-when there were 25 absent and 10 tardy out of a total of 122 enrollment.

I just don't understand that. Here are some more figures: 82 members of the chorus have had a total of 160 unexcused absences-which certainly is fair enough; but the remaining 40 have had a total of 245 absences-which isn't at all fair. (If I were one of the 82 I'd kick.) And if you take into account the excused absences the overall is a hard average to cope with in the preparation of a difficult work like the Rogers.

The problem of discipline in a school situation is a thoroughly confusing one. Somehow, both professional and completely amateur regimens are easier to handle. The professional's pay stops, and the amateur simply drops out. But a school is more complex. One contracts to take certain courses, and if they are ensemble courses with performance as their objective, then attendance must be counted one of the contractual obligations. (One cannot balance an unbalanced group, for instance, when the conditions of imbalance alter from week to week.) And it seems reasonable to me that those who break that contract-of-sorts should not expect the benefits of credit and/or performance. If that is unfair, I'd like to know it. - And you'll just have to take my word that it is not representative of ill will.

I happen to believe in the Rogers Passion. I feel a little lonely, but I feel less lonely having heard what some of the soloists are making of this music when placed within the orchestral frame. Any time that the orchestra has played what Rogers intended, this work has proved its right to be heard and respected and loved. There is no lack of craft or heart on Rogers' part. The weaknesses are ours-conductor's (most of all), then instrumentalist's and singer's. The only question is whether we have-or can acquire in the next three weeks-musicianship sufficient to the music.

I'm certainly going to try, and it would be nice to know that you were also.

R. S.

September 1960

Dear Sir:

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus is again announcing its annual auditions for membership.

This particular letter is addressed to educational, industrial and social institutions throughout the city.

It may well be that your organization already sustains a musical program for its members; and we would not like to offer it in competition in any matters of time, energy, or attention.

If such is not the case, however, and if members of your organization might enjoy association with the musical program of the Cleveland Orchestra, or if-as is felt by some-such association might increase their value to your own musical program, we should be grateful if, through your customary media, you could bring announcement of our auditions to their attention.

Scheduled for this season are:

Brahms-A German Requiem Barber-Prayers of Kierkegaard Bach-Magnificat Schubert-Mass in G Christmas Festival Program Beethoven-Symphony No. 9

Interested persons may phone or write for audition appointments to: The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Severance Hall, Cleveland 6, Ohio or telephone CEdar 1-7300.

With deepest thanks for your courtesy and attention in this regard.


Robert Shaw, Director The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus

September 21, 1960

Dear friends -

It is my unpleasant duty to inform you that your re-audition for the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus has been successful, and you may expect to resume orbit sometime between 7:30 and 7:45 p.m. next Monday, September 26.

You may wish to know some of the considerations which have guided our evaluations and have qualified you for re-admission. Believe me, it ain't been easy.

Number One: Any good-looking woman was admitted ipso facto and sans souci. This might sound to you like a pretty personal way to go about this sort of thing-but I assure you that George and I had either (1) to agree, or (2) voluntarily disqualify ourselves before a decision was reached and as George says, "A chorus is a pretty personal sort of instrument-let's keep it that way."

Number Two: Anybody who was really scared made it. I mean really scared. George and I get a big kick out of seeing some of you who really suffer: you know-clammy hands, all choked up in the voice, stomach muscles shaking like crazy, stumble up the steps or trip over the electric fan, start sight-reading from right to left and all that-anybody who gave old George and me a sort of pin-the-butterfly chuckle had it made.

Number Three: Anybody who had a cold got in. Almost all the great singers we know are hypochondriacs-and we didn't feel we could afford to pass anybody up here. (I remember one person who's had throat trouble at every audition since 1956, and that's the kind of sensitive person we like to have around.)

Number Four: There are always a few special rules for tenors. For instance, their reading test would be a little more accurately described as "sight improvising." I ask them to make up a note and hum it-and if George can find it on the piano, they're in. (I try not to look when these things are going on because I don't want to be unduly influenced by appearances or things like that, and George says three tenors made it this year just by blowing their noses.)

Number Five: Husband and wife teams stood a good chance this year, particularly when one partner to the marriage (and here we accept their word completely) was a bass or a tenor. This is a sort of insurance policy. Remember last year when the churches got mad because we had scheduled a St. Matthew Passion for Easter Sunday-well, suppose one of our concerts happens to fall on Mother's Day! From here on we have our own built-in mothers-and fathers-and anyway like George says you can't win 'em all.

These things-plus little things like giving preference to people who were studying medicine or engineering or math-because they'd have lots of free time and could make extra rehearsals, or to folks who lived fifty or one hundred miles from Cleveland-so that their families could learn independence-these are the things my friends and fellow-Americans which lead me to believe that this year's chorus will be the chorus of 1960-61, and I'm sure we all know how we all feel about all that.

Pox nobiscum,

R. S.

February 11, 1954


Whereas, it's the only way choruses can be understood, and Whereas, it settles half the problems of intonation, color, balance, and phrasing, and Whereas, I'm going to keep on hollering 'til it's settled Be It Resolved: Leave us save our ears and voices a helluva beating Leave us -


Excerpted from THE ROBERT SHAW READER Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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