1930s – The Beginnings
A choral renaissance began to unfold quietly in 1938 when Fred Waring invited twenty-two year old Robert Shaw to New York City to work with The Pennsylvanians on his radio show, Chesterfield Pleasure Time Show. The fifteen minute show aired live five nights a week, performed once for the East coast and an hour later for the West Coast.
Pleasure Time aired for the next five years, its music arranged, rehearsed, and performed without aid of recordings, reels, tapes, cassettes, photocopiers, faxes, computers, ipods, or cell phones. Choral music prepared by Robert Shaw and performed live, coast to coast. Amazing!
Robert Shaw said, “we could never have toured Bach’s Mass in B Minor had it not been for Waring’s radio shows which made choral music a household word.” Waring used his clout to advertise Broadway musicals. He even said one of his greatest musical experiences was a rehearsal with no costumes and only a pit piano for accompaniment.
Easter with Fred Waring
The Holy City by Stephen Adams
The singers? Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. The show? South Pacific! You might also recognize Waring’s name because during intermissions, on tour with The Pennsylvanians, Waring the inventor and nutritionist sold his Waring Blenders in the lobby. And, they may still be found in the finest stores today.
1940s – The First Professional Choir in the Land
In 1941, Robert Shaw was invited to guest conduct the Collegiate Chorale at Norman Vincent Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church. This experience gripped Shaw with an almost evangelistic fervor.
And, it was with these singers that he began to forge his famed choral techniques. An original Collegiate Chorale member recounts the passionate and emotional Robert Shaw. He might storm out of a rehearsal, leaving the singers to believe he was angry at them; but I think his frustration early on was because he had not yet discovered a way to get what he wanted vocally and musically.
Granted, later on, he could also show a petulant side; on the Russian tour of Bach’s B Minor the union representative asked him not to swear in rehearsal. His response was to conduct the next performance, head lowered, ignoring the singers.
In 1944, Robert Shaw spent a year on a Guggenheim fellowship studying with musicologist, Julius Herford. Neither teacher nor pupil ever recovered from the experience. In 1946, William Schuman appointed Shaw to be the Director of Choral Music at Juilliard. In the same year, conductor Margaret Hillis (1921–1998) and renowned arranger, composer, conductor Alice Parker (1925–), both arrived at Juilliard to study conducting. Alice recalls: “I had just graduated from Smith. Margaret seemed so mature and self assured, so organized and self-directed in everything she did.” During World War II, Hillis suspended her music studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, to train pilots as a flight instructor. Margaret, Alice, Robert Shaw, and Julius Herford formed a tight circle, and it was difficult to tell teacher from pupil.
Alice recalls “Anyone caught up in Shaw’s world had no time for anything but what he was doing.” He required everyone to commit themselves to music as a way of life. That passion and genius would eventually touch each of us as we see in the burgeoning choral movement today.
Toscanini praised Robert’s preparation of the Beethoven 9 saying it was the chorus he had always dreamt of. Shaw was now conducting and recording an amazing list of works including the Hindemith chansons (1945), the Christmas albums (1946 and 1952) and the Bach Mass in B Minor (1947).
As a freshman at Goshen College, I’m sure I wore out his recording of the Hindemith chansons. I avidly collected Shaw recordings but gave them to my favorite high school students in Mendon, Ohio, when I left for three years in India. I have none of those original recordings, however, Mark Stenroos, a former Kent State student and a Shaw fan, reissued the Christmas recordings along with other works in 1994.
As head of BMG, Mark interviewed Shaw giving us a unique glimpse of the difficulties of recording in the early days. Christmas with the Robert Shaw Chorale may be found today (Musical Heritage Society). To paraphrase Shaw:
There were three carols in each band and we had to record them in a row without any pitch or text errors or elevator noise. If that happened we had to stop, shave the head and start all over.
1950s – Robert Shaw Chorale Tours and the First Symphony Choruses in Cleveland and Chicago
The Robert Shaw Chorale was the first professional choir in the country. I heard them at my alma mater, Goshen College, when I was eighteen. Shaw strode on stage, a commanding presence, to conduct a spellbinding performance of Schubert’s Mass in G Major with Lois Marshall, soprano, Tommy Pyle, bass and Clayton Krehbiel, tenor. Florence Kopleff, an Armenian-American contralto, sang folksongs with a depth of spirit and vocal color that is still unequalled and may be heard on the MHS recordings mentioned above. She could crescendo color without increasing the dynamic level. The Chorale was our favorite in our College Lecture Music Series which also included the Trapp Family Singers, the Cleveland Orchestra, Marian Anderson and Rudolph Serkin.
In 1951, I entered Goshen College, a Mennonite college in northern Indiana, and I graduated in 1955 with a double major in voice and piano, having given recitals in both. I liked to pretend I was a student of Rosina Lhėvinne because I studied piano with Francis Clark and Ruth Robbins who were Lhėvinne disciples. James Levine and Van Cliburn were Lhévinne’s most famous students. Both she and her husband Josef were concert pianists who also taught at Juilliard.
I’m told that, as a child, I draped clothes over chairs and got up on another chair and conducted them. Julia, my big sister, accompanied me as a toddler as did my Mother as a boy soprano. I remember singing in three parts for the first time in Junior Choir, arranging tunes in high school for our barber shop quartet under our wonderful choir teacher, Dorothy Zimmerman, and being the student band director for Mr. Habegger. In college, after seeing Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors on TV, Christmas 1951, I rented the music from G. Schirmer for our sorority and fraternity performance, designed the set, borrowed costumes from a local mason, cast, staged and conducted the first opera ever presented at my alma mater. Mary Oyer, faculty mentor, attended a rehearsal and amused, she said, “I can’t see a beat pattern but it’s very musical.”
Robert Shaw Corale
Aura Lee by George Poulten
Arranged by Alice Parker, Robert Shaw and Ralph Hunter
The name of the chorale conducted by Shaw varied depending upon the recording company who hired it: the RCA Victor Chorale, the CBS Chorale or the ABC Chorale. In 1948, Shaw used his own name for the first time when they replaced an ailing Edgar Bergen, ventriloquist. Thus the Robert Shaw Chorale was born. Thirty singers: eight sopranos, seven altos, seven tenors, and eight basses comprised the tour group.
Their first concert of the season was often at Goshen College because the Mennonites so loved choral music and Shaw respected their singing tradition. In the middle of the Indiana cornfields, fifteen miles from our farm, this little Mennonite College annually engaged the Robert Shaw Chorale. The Chorale’s sonority and unique color moved me deeply.
That quality, that vocal color is still in my ear. They sang with a vitality, commitment, and soul which were utterly riveting. Their intonation was excellent and, dear reader, they sang with vibrato and a richness of vocal expression that I miss with groups who use only one tone color, or who sing with a straight tone. Should a phrase not bloom with color, crescendo, roundness, and the warmth of vibrato? Today American choirs sing with straight tone to create an “early music style” which, to me, sounds more like an affect. It is an influence from European and English choirs and recordings.
When is straight tone appropriate and in which style period? We choral folk have more stylistic concerns than any other group of musicians. Shaping and coloring a phrase is what interests me. Curiously, it is often only the women sing with straight tone while the men sing with vibrato.
But I digress. The Chorale’s stage demeanor was elegant, the soloists bowing to Shaw and he to them, and their appearance very classy. In those days choirs wore choir robes but the Robert Shaw Chorale women wore evening gowns designed just for that tour. We waited breathlessly each year for the new “look”. The men of course wore tails. Concerts were held in our gym which had excellent acoustics, attested to by pianist Rudolph Serkin.
Today the College boasts a new concert hall, Sauder Concert Hall, with acoustics as fine as you will find anywhere in the world including Frank Gehry’s in L.A. or the stunning halls in Japan. And, the Mennonites are still singing and aiding in disaster relief all over the world.
While I was listening to the Shaw Chorale on tour in Goshen, Indiana, Margaret Hillis was rehearsing Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale in New York while he was away. In 1950, Margaret founded the New York Concert Choir. She also conducted the City Opera, the American Opera Society, and taught at Juilliard and Union Theological Seminary. Robert Page (Bob), a young tenor, was her protégé at Union and an original member of her Concert Choir. He was a part of the new choral scene and would become an important person in Margaret’s life—and an unbelievable force in my life.
Bob recounts Margaret’s rehearsal of Schönberg’s Friede auf Erden held in a loft around 39th street. It was not going well. Out of patience, Margaret announced in her deep bass voice, “some of you seem to have vocal problems. I would advise that you solve them by tomorrow’s rehearsal” (i.e., “go learn the notes!”).
In 1956, George Szell invited Robert Shaw to found the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and two years later Fritz Reiner persuaded Margaret Hillis to come to Chicago to found the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Robert Page recalls, “Margaret took 80 of us from her American Concert Choir to Chicago to sing Mozart’s Grand Mass in C and the Bruckner Te Deum. In the Midwest, there was the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus with Robert Shaw and the Chicago Symphony Chorus with Margaret Hillis, and on the west coast was the Roger Wagner Chorale in Los Angeles. All happening in the USA—serendipitous simultaneity!
Shaw quickly established the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, employing the techniques he had used with the Collegiate and Shaw Chorales. Following each rehearsal he would send love notes to the chorus. In 1983, when I left the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus to go to San Francisco, I was given copies of these letters as a farewell gift. They are witty, full of Shavian quotes and ideas about Bach articulations. In rehearsal, Shaw’s brain raced as he searched and stammered to express himself. It was as if there was a storm brewing inside, one which would then erupt into words which were outrageous or downright risqué; but they made you think and laugh.
Shaw spoke regularly at Unitarian gatherings in Cleveland and hated any air of pretension in anyone. For a public lecture in Northwestern University’s Milar Chapel he began, “how nice to be back among the sherry sipping, mink-coated ladies of Chicago’s North Shore Center of Condescending Affluence.” (Yes, he really said that.) Szell brought him to Cleveland to train him as a conductor and in that venue, Shaw conducted all choral works plus subscription, holiday, and children’s concerts. But the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and the Robert Shaw Chorale were his first loves. Robert was a human dynamo that championed new music to the end.
The 1960s and Transitions
In 1961 I began graduate studies at Indiana University. That very year, Choral Conducting, a brand new degree, was offered for the first time anywhere in the world. I signed up for it and took every music history course offered, along with ballet and organ. What fun! I sang in Chamber Singers, the Early Music Group and of course in the opera chorus. In fact, it was in Wagner’s Meistersinger, Act III quintet, with Rachael Day Kessler singing Eva and Paul Matthen’s Hans Sachs, that I realized opera could be deeply moving music. It truly made me weep. During long breaks, against all rules, we’d sneak out in costume and makeup to the local bar for beer and boiled eggs. I had gone to become a junior high specialist but completed course work for the master’s and doctorate degrees in choral conducting. Life has a way of teaching—or offering—forks in the road, choices.
About that time Julius Herford arrived from New York to teach analysis of Haydn masses and the large Bach works. My colleagues Peter Bagley, Don Moses, Robert DeMaree, Fred Renz, and I were aware that Wilfred Bain, Dean of the School of Music, along with Indiana University’s administrative leadership, had done something great for us: we were able to study with the man who, twenty years earlier, had taught the same Haydn and Bach repertoire to Robert Shaw.
To earn a few dollars while at Indiana University, I announced the classical radio show and conducted the Hillel Choir at the Jewish student organization. Our Rabbi wanted to present something special to the campus so I suggested an all-Schönberg concert which I organized with members of our Schönberg class taught by Professor John Reeves White.
Between 1910 and 1911, Schönberg stopped composing and painted, exhibiting with The Blaue Reiter group which included Kandinsky, Braque, Picasso and Matisse. So I called Mrs. Schönberg in Los Angeles and asked her if there were any of her husband’s graphic works she might be willing to loan us. Since the entire collection had just returned from the Maggio Musicale Festival in Florence and was still in crates, all the Rabbi had to do was pay the freight.
Thus, the Lily Library became a gallery exhibiting the complete graphic works of Arnold Schönberg for two weeks—and, we gave a smashing concert. I’m very grateful to our Rabbi and to the Schönbergs. I was becoming an entrepreneur.
Within a decade, following Shaw’s lead, Margaret Hillis, had established the Chicago Symphony Chorus as one of the finest in the country. She received Grammy awards for nine recordings, all of which she had prepared for Solti. In l977, she made her famous appearance conducting Mahler’s Sympony No. 8 in Carnegie Hall as a last-minute substitute for an ailing Solti. With this concert she became an icon. As a fellow Hoosier, I felt great pride; Margaret Hillis mounted the podium of a male dominated world and, even more, a “European” male dominated world of conductors! Only in the latter half of the 20th Century were American orchestral conductors finally appointed; Loren Maazel in Cleveland, Leonard Slatkin in Washington and MichaelTilson Thomas in San Francisco, a huge step forward for American musicians. And, dear reader the importance of choral music, choirs, and choral conductors grew very, very rapidly in the latter half of the century.
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Cantata Profana By Béla Bartók
Pierre Boulez conducting – Margaret Hills, chorus master
Miss Hillis was quite reserved, even infamous for strictness in rehearsal and her requirements for auditions were specific. One day an unusually bouncy auditionee was ushered in to present her talents to the great lady. After speaking to the accompanist, she turned to Margaret as strains of There’s No Business Like Show Business began to fill the audition space. Hillis looked up, startled. The singer, undaunted, broke into a tap dance and, in mid-turn, shouted over her shoulder, “how’m I doin’ Miz Hillis?” Miss Hillis would tell this story and conductor Margaret Hawkins and I would laugh ’til we cried.
When I joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty in 1963, Rudolph Kolish, Schönberg’s brother-in-law was on faculty. For his retirement, I planned a year’s festival of Schönberg, Berg and Webern, bringing in René Leibowitz from Paris, a Schönberg specialist, and Stefan Auber, from New York, the cellist from the Kolisch quartet. Rudi had premiered many contemporary works and played the violin concertos of Schönberg and Berg. So I programmed both for the University Orchestra.
We were bringing 12-tone music to a whole new generation and we did zany programming like performing Pierrot Lunaire twice, once in German and again after intermission in English. Schönberg and Stravisnky were so cutting edge in 1963, and now after forty-four years, history is telling another story.
UW—Madison hired me at the last minute because the former conductor was taken ill. I was hungry, brazen and didn’t care if the job was one year or five years. They wanted someone famous. I was not.
After they received refusals from Shaw and Hillis, Don Neuen came in for a few years. But, my contracts just kept rolling over until after seven years they engaged Robert Fountain. In the meantime, I was having a great time; musicologists Eva Badura-Skoda and Solange Corbin introduced me to a medieval drama, The Play of the Three Maries. The New York Pro Musica had recorded and toured The Play of Daniel and, having sung it at Indiana University, I knew audiences were ready for more.I staged, costumed and took our Play of the Three Maries to New York where Richard Westenberg hosted us at his Central Presbyterian Church. The play, originally sung in Latin and old French, was sung at Easter Matins. It tells the story of the Maries going to the tomb and finding it empty on Easter morning.
Margaret Hawkins, classmate and good friend at Indiana University, had studied with both Hillis and Shaw. Hawkins suggested I should meet Miss Hillis so I attended a rehearsal of Stravinsky’s Les noces, Svadebka, in the bowels of New York’s Avery Fischer Hall. The rehearsal was already in progress when I arrived. I sneaked in, sat on the floor behind the chorus and peeked between the singers to observe the conductor, Thomas Schippers, who was giving instructions and conducting, or so I thought. Following the rehearsal Tommy Pyle, Alice Parker’s husband, introduced me. But, when Margaret spoke it was the bass voice I had thought was Schippers. It was Margaret’s voice and it was she who had run the rehearsal while Schippers conducted. My jaw dropped as I stammered, “I, I thought you were…!” She laughed heartily, relishing every moment of my embarrassment over the mistaken conductor identity. “Never sing louder than beautiful,” was her motto in that rehearsal and many others.