Robert Shaw, the music director and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for more than twenty years, brought the symphony to its current position as one of the finest in the country. His work with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and Chamber Chorus contributed to a renaissance in American choral music.
Robert Lawson Shaw was born on April 30, 1916, in Red Bluff, California, to Nelle Mae Lawson and Shirley Richard Shaw, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister. Shaw came to music by way of philosophy, English literature, and religion, his majors at Pomona College in Claremont, California. The direction of his life changed in 1937 when Fred Waring heard a concert that Shaw conducted with the college’s glee club and invited him to New York to audition and prepare Waring’s new group of singers, the Fred Waring Glee Club, for radio broadcasts and performances.
In 1941, branching out from Waring’s glee club, Shaw founded and directed the Collegiate Chorale, an amateur New York chorus of 185 singers that grew into a significant symphonic chorus, which performed and commissioned great choral masterworks and worked with such renowned musicians as Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, and Paul Hindemith. It was out of this group in 1948 that Shaw formed the Robert Shaw Chorale, which for two decades reigned as America’s premier touring choral group and was sent by the U.S. State Department to thirty countries in Europe, the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Latin America.
From 1953 to 1956 Shaw served as conductor of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra in California and from 1956 to 1967 as associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in Ohio, working closely with conductor George Szell. He was music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) from 1967 to 1988, during which time he built the ensemble into a major American orchestra. The ASO, along with the ASO Chorus and Chamber Chorus, which he founded and directed, garnered widespread acclaim through national and international tours and award-winning recordings. From 1988 until his death Shaw served as music director emeritus and conductor laureate of the ASO.
Shaw’s many honors include degrees and citations from more than twenty-five U.S. colleges and universities, sixteen Grammy Awards, England’s Gramophone Award, a gold record for the first RCA classical recording to sell more than a million copies, four ASCAP Awards for service to contemporary music, the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever awarded to a conductor, the Alice M. Ditson Award for service to contemporary music, the George Peabody Medal for outstanding contributions to music in America, and the Gold Baton Award of the American Symphony Orchestra League for distinguished service to music and the arts. Shaw was appointed in 1979 by U.S president Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts, and in 1988 he was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. In 1991 he received the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s highest honor to artists. He was named Musician of the Year for 1992 by Musical America, the international directory of the performing arts, and during the same year was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in a White House ceremony. He was the 1993 recipient of the Conductors Guild’s Theodore Thomas Award, and in March 1997 he received the French government’s highest honor to artists, the Officier des Arts et des Lettres medal. Shaw was the 1998 recipient of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Gift of Music Award in New York City, and that same year was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
A regular guest conductor of major orchestras in the United States and abroad, Shaw was also in demand as a teacher and lecturer at leading U.S. universities. In 1988 he founded the Robert Shaw Institute at Emory University in Atlanta. The institute’s summer festivals attracted admiring attention from the international press and produced a number of recordings by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers. With a similar Atlanta-based group, the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, he also performed and recorded from 1992 to 1997. He founded a series of annual week-long choral workshops at Carnegie Hall that still afford singers and conductors the chance to study and perform the great choral masterworks.
Throughout his fifty-year career, Shaw was an ardent spokesman for the importance of the role of the amateur in music making. In his weekly correspondence to the three amateur choruses around which his career centered (the Collegiate Chorale, the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, and the ASO Chorus), Shaw revealed what drove his restless pursuit of excellence—the edification and ennobling of the human spirit and the intelligence that comes from exposure to and, in the choral amateur’s case, re-creation of great art. These essaylike letters repeatedly present Shaw’s philosophy of the arts as “not the privilege of a few, but the necessity of us all.”
Shaw died on January 25, 1999, in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2004 Yale University Press published a collection of Shaw’s “choral letters,” speeches, lectures, and eulogies entitled The Robert Shaw Reader. Shaw served as a mentor to the collection’s editor, Robert Blocker, who is dean of the Yale School of Music. Yale University houses Shaw’s papers and music collection.