Robert Shaw was born on April 30, 1916 in Red Bluff, California. His family was musical, but he was at first expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, a clergyman. At Pomona College, he sang in the Glee Club, and when the conductor had to go on a medical leave of absence, Shaw took over. Fred Waring, a popular band leader, happened to hear the substitute’s surprisingly proficient conducting, and he offered Shaw a job. After graduating, Shaw accepted the offer and in 1938 established the Fred Waring Glee Club in New York. Waring’s group focused on light music; wanting to take on weightier repertoire, Shaw began conducting the Collegiate Chorale in 1941. He was so successful that within a few years he was teaching choral conducting at Juilliard and at Tanglewood, and preparing choruses for Arturo Toscanini, who called him “The maestro I have been waiting for.”
In 1948 Shaw founded the Robert Shaw Chorale, a smaller and more selective group. Its many concert tours and best-selling recordings made Shaw a household name, and established his reputation as the leading choral conductor of his generation. Meanwhile, despite his rapid success, Shaw remained self-conscious about his weaknesses: a limited formal education in music, and a lack of experience as an orchestral conductor. He worked tirelessly to overcome these shortcomings. In the mid-1940s and early ’50s, he took lessons from Julius Herford, Pierre Monteux, and Artur Rodzinski. From 1953 to 1958 he conducted the San Diego Symphony, and from 1956 to 1967, he was the associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, a major job that also served as a long apprenticeship under the brilliant but imperious George Szell.
In 1967, Shaw disbanded the Robert Shaw Chorale and resigned from the Cleveland Orchestra to become the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The ASO had been a semiprofessional orchestra little known outside the South, but Shaw turned it into a first-rate professional ensemble that won several Grammy Awards. As one would expect, Shaw also made the ASO Chorus a world leader in its category.
Shaw stepped down from the ASO in 1988, but in retirement he continued to maintain a punishing schedule as a guest conductor, as music director emeritus in Atlanta, and as the leader of several institutes for training choral conductors. He died in New Haven on January 25, 1999.
Shaw’s family donated his papers to the Gilmore Music Library in 2002. Robert Blocker, Dean of the Yale School of Music and an old friend of Shaw, was instrumental in bringing the collection to Yale. (He also edited The Robert Shaw Reader, an anthology of Shaw’s writings.) The Shaw Papers are one of our largest (414 boxes) and most heavily used archival collections. They have been an important source for many projects, including Keith Burris’s 2013 biography Deep River: The Life and Music of Robert Shaw, and the upcoming PBS documentary, Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices.
Our exhibit features a small but diverse sampling from the treasures of the Shaw Papers; it includes annotated scores, photographs, correspondence, writings, and all kinds of memorabilia.
The Yale Glee Club is marking the Shaw centenary with two special events on April 9. At 3:30 PM in Battell Chapel, Ann Howard Jones (choral director emerita at Boston University, and one of Shaw’s closest associates) gives a lecture-demonstration on Shaw's rehearsal techniques with the Glee Club. At 7:30 PM in Woolsey Hall, Jeffrey Douma leads the Glee Club in a performance of Shaw’s edition of Haydn’s The Creation. The exhibit features three items from The Creation, and one from Jones. Our title, Bringing Order Out of Chaos, refers to Haydn’s famous musical depiction of chaos at the beginning of The Creation, and also to the task that choral conductors face every day.