Music as Sacrament

The mastery of Robert Shaw

I am a Connecticut Yankee transplanted from the Midwest. I have never worshiped the sun, never sought the heat. But this past June I headed due and deep south on a sort of personal pilgrimage, to hear and see the world’s master of choral music, Robert Shaw. At eighty-two, Shaw is not only the grand old man of American classical music, he is also one of the most adventuresome conductors working anywhere.
Shaw has been a household name for fifty years. Millions of Americans remember the Robert Shaw Chorale of the 1950s and 1960s. They heard it on tour or bought the records. Still others remember his work on the radio and with Fred Waring. But even then Shaw was leading choruses for Toscanini, teaching at Juilliard, and founding the Collegiate Chorale. An intensely serious musician, he has always sought the most noble and difficult work. Thus, at the peak of his own chorale’s popularity, he went to work with the Cleveland Orchestra, running its choral program so that he could learn from the legendary George Szell. In fact, Shaw tailored his chorale’s tours around the Cleveland Orchestra’s schedule.

In those years, Shaw was setting a new standard for vocal music in America-while popularizing it. He had a deep and widespread impact on two generations of community, high-school, and college choral direction. Working with Alice Parker, he created the now-enshrined arrangements of American Negro spirituals and...

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About the Author

Keith C. Burris is editorial page editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.