In his long career, which spanned six decades and four cities, Robert Shaw transformed choral conducting into an art and nearly single-handedly raised its standards to a new level. For more than half a century he set the standard of excellence for choral music, enjoying a status of patriarch of vocal musical interpretation in the USA.
Robert (Lawson) Shaw came from a clerical family. His father and grandfather were ministers. More importantly, perhaps, his mother sang in church choirs. In school, his serious interests were in philosophy, literature, and religion, but at Pomona College he did join the glee club. Then, in a chain of events right out of a Warner Brothers backstage musical, Shaw was asked to take over the choir for an ailing faculty leader the same year that Fred Waring happened to be making a film on the campus. Waring was impressed, asked him to go to New York to develop a glee club for him, and a star conductor was born.
Robert Shaw's first major honor came as early as 1943 from the National Association of Composers and Conductors which cited him as "America's greatest choral conductor."
Four decades ago, the great - and not easily pleased - Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was conducting L.v. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with his NBC Symphony Orchestra. After hearing the chorus, which had been prepared by Robert Shaw, perform the glorious choral movement that ends the symphony, Arturo Toscanini turned to his players and said, "In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for."
With the founding of the Robert Shaw Chorale in New York in 1948, which Robert Shaw was to conduct for another 20 years, his fame and influence in the field became second to none in the world, leading the group on extensive tours throughout Europe, the Soviet Union, Latin America, and the Middle East under the auspices of the State Department. For this esteemed Robert Shaw Chorale, he commissioned pieces from the leading composers of the day: Béla Bartók, Darius Milhaud, Benjamin Britten, and Aaron Copland.
Robert Shaw also served as music director of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra until he was recruited by George Szell to conduct the choral section of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. He served under Szell for 11 years, during which time he shaped the Cleveland chorus.
In 1967 Robert Shaw accepted the directorship of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and saw it grow from a local band of a part-time amateur symphony of 60 musicians to a fine major-league orchestra (when he retired in 1988, the orchestra comprised 93 professional players), establishing a magnificent choral adjunct and leading the combined forces in many definitive recordings of the symphonic-choral music literature. During his 21 years in Atlanta, he conducted both the regular orchestra and the chorus. The recordings he made with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the chorus -- eleven of which won Grammy awards -- are still "benchmarks" in the field, according to Smith. Shaw won four other Grammy awards and was nominated this year for two more. He recorded the first classical album on the RCA label to sell over a million copies.
The recipient of 40 honorary degrees and citations, the George M. Peabody Medal, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the National Medal of Arts, Robert Shaw was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame at New York's Julliard School of Music last year. In 1991, he received the Kennedy Center Honors, America's highest award for artistic achievement. He founded the Robert Shaw Institute, which encourages the creation and production of choral art and sponsors the Robert Shaw Festival.
Perhaps best known for his arrangement of L.v. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Robert Shaw was asked in 1981 if he found its constant performance a chore. He answered: "I always feel … this could be the last time I ever get to do this piece," he said. "It's like speaking before the United States Senate or reading an Irish poem for William Butler Yeats. Any time you do this piece, it's an event. And it's a major event."