Music, in and of itself, is one of the most glorious elements of human existence. Giving music meaning and significance in a world of chaos is an extraordinary achievement in the 21st Century. Giving this gift of music to the world in his brilliant interpretations and conducting style, Robert Shaw blessed us all with his gifts and abilities. A magnificent personality, a virtuoso of chorale conducting, and a patron of the musical arts that stood for excellence, Robert Shaw will be greatly missed. His legacy of musical distinction came to end with his death on January 25th, 1999.
Robert Shaw was considered “an institution”, a “musical priest”. James Conlon, the American orchestral and choral conductor, reiterated this sentiment in a New York Times article on Shaw’s legacy. Conlon stated, “As long as I’ve known choral music, he’s been there. He was a gigantic figure, and it feels like a different world without him”. His ubiquity in the realm of choral conducting is instilled in part by the bold terrain he forged early in his career. The first to lead a professional performance of the Bach B Minor Mass in New York and the first to record an American version of the Brahms German Requiem, he fearlessly tread on ground that many claimed was uncharted and only for the “insane”.
Shaw’s legacy is as a genius of conducting chorale music and bringing out the absolute best in vocal ability in every musician at the other end of his baton. Shaw asserted that “Music making does not diminish the individual; rather, it ennobles every participant” (Denmead, Hartford Chorale). He had that rare gift of brash yet ability to inspire and command those that were under him to a level of excellence and respect. While he did not teach conducting or chorale technique, Shaw educated by example and unobtrusively allowed his predecessors to “tag along” and observe his excellence. Shaw embodied excellence and what he contributed to a performance consisted of “precision plus spirit”. Brilliant in mind as well as music, Shaw’s career spanned 60 years and included the founding of Collegiate Chorale in 1941, the Robert Shaw Chorale in 1948 and the Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus in 1967.