Robert Shaw’s Ministry of Music

by Gretchen E. Ziegenhals

Gretchen E. Ziegenhals is an assistant editor of the Century.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 22-29, 1989, p. 311. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A biographical sketch of Robert Shaw and his thoughts on music and religion. “Worship is an art . . . in that it has a certain amount of time in which to consider matters of worth.”

After a performance in a shabby industrial town in Tennessee of the Mozart Requiem, which the concert manager had requested the Robert Shaw Chorale not perform because ‘it was too highbrow," a young woman waited for the autograph seekers to depart. "I suppose," she told Shaw quietly, "there are two kinds of people who would understand the Mozart Requiem: those sufficiently skilled in musical materials and literature to appreciate its technical mastery, and those who have lately experienced a deep personal tragedy. I am no musician. Thank you very much."

Robert Lawson Shaw has spent a lifetime in music. He founded the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Collegiate Chorale, the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. His love of music was nurtured in a California parsonage (his family was known as "the Singing Shaws") and in the church (three generations of Shaws and Lawsons were chaplains, ministers or missionaries) Once asked if it was being a minister’s son that gave him the deep religious convictions that influenced his interpretation of music, he replied, "Yes, partly. But words and ideas have always thrilled me as much as sound, and religious words have always held the most power and meaning for me."

Shaw studied comparative religion, philosophy and English literature at Pomona College with the intention of following his father into the pulpit. But in his junior year Fred Waring stopped by a glee club rehearsal at which Shaw was substituting for the absent conductor. Waring told him, "If you ever need a job, Bob, look me up." One year later, needing money for seminary studies, Shaw did. At age 22, with little prior experience, he accepted Waring’s offer to form a glee club for a new radio series, and his life took a slightly different direction.

Although many people think of Shaw primarily as a choral and orchestral conductor, he might better be considered a minister of music, for he ministers and brings a message through his music to musicians and laypeople. He has long worked to overcome the separation of art and religion, giving numerous addresses on the importance and interrelation of worship and the arts. In singing under Shaw for more than 16 years -- in New York, Cleveland, Puerto Rico and Princeton -- I came to understand how the standards he sets for church musicians and the spiritual values he brings to the concert podium produce the kind of music that so moved that young woman in Tennessee.

On the nature of worship, one of Shaw’s frequent themes, he makes three points. First, for worship to occur, there must be a sense of mystery and an admission of pain. Referring to the lines of two American folk hymns, "What wondrous love is this/which caused the Lord of bliss/to bear the dreadful curse for my soul" and "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me," Shaw remarks, "These words are magic to me, and their melodies, shaped and worn by Niagaras and years of tears, are as perfect as anything I know in music."

In his youth, he encountered a "shoutier boastier fare," such as "O there’s power, power, wonder working power/In the precious blood of the Lamb." In the great hymns and spirituals of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as in "There is a balm in Gilead/to make the wounded whole," and "Swing low, sweet chariot,/comin’ for to carry me home," he finds "a directness and a fervor of utterance and humility which involves man’s nobility and, to me, a spark of divinity."

How different these hymns are from what he calls the "foulsome flush" to which we are subjected on some religious broadcasts. Shaw deplores the fare emanating from what he calls "Crystal Christ-o-rama, California," maintaining that "there are not enough disposal plants in the country to handle TV Sunday morning effluence!" No mystery, no pain.

A second characteristic of worship for Shaw is that it is communal. Although in our solitude each of us has experienced "instants of worship wherein no other human being walked nor could have entered," worship is a "communion and a fellowship." Shaw cites Martin Buber: "Man finds his being and his relationship to the other . . . which some call God, only when he is confronted with and responsive to another human being -- a thou." In Shaw’s words, "The Lord, our God, is one God, but it takes two to find him."

Third, according to Shaw, worship has a "formal and ritualistic basis." Our coming together with regular frequency helps us better understand one another and our relationship to God. "This is where the arts knock on the church door," says Shaw.

Assume with me two things. First, that form in art is also a factor of value and meaning. That is to say, if one has exactly so much space to shape, as in painting or sculpture, or if he has so much time to inform, as with poetry or music, the achieved proportions of that time and space . . . are root, trunk, branch and leaf, seed, sap and substance of meaning.

Assume with me also that worship is an art . . . or at least similar to the arts in that it has a certain amount of corporate time in which to consider matters of worth, in which to propose and proportion beauty and truth.

It is no small wonder that formal worship should evoke the sensation of sight and sound as well as reason. And that sound need not always be fortissimo. The "Benedictus" of Bach’s B Minor Mass calls for only one flute, one cello and one tenor -- and three incredibly great human beings.

Worship must also be able to inspire and instruct us in a vertical, God-to-man sense as well as in a horizontal, man-to-others sense. To these ends a creative liturgy should be one of the greatest natural resources of the liberal church.

In 1960, while associate director of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Shaw was installed as minister of music -- at no salary -- at the First Unitarian (Unitarian Universalist) Church of Cleveland. In his inaugural sermon, "Music and Worship in the Liberal Church," he spoke of the responsibilities of the arts to the church, saying that only the best is good enough. Otherwise, "God is only mocked, not worshiped."

He cited four elements that are part of worshipful music. The first is the motivation of the participants. He remembered returning to his father’s church as a young man, after having been exposed to the cantatas and passions of Bach, and seeing his mother and grandmother sing the old hymn "There were 90 and 9 that safely lay in the shelter of the fold." Tears came to Shaw ‘s eyes. There was nothing wrong with the motivation used to select that hymn. At the same time, Shaw thought how much greater an experience it would have been if everyone could have studied and performed Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew. "Purity of purpose does dignify," he says, "but not all tears attest to equally deep springs of sorrow."

A second element of music for worship is craftsmanship. Music must be decently and honestly constructed. It need not be a masterpiece, but must have "at least the mortar, brick and foundation specified in the contract."

Shaw’s third criterion is that music have a historical perspective, which is "close to what we mean by ‘style.’ "In this category Shaw includes folk hymns, carols and spirituals and "the passions and cantatas of Bach, the late Haydn and early Schubert and masses and requiems by Brahms and Britten." Most music worthy of use in worship will have a heritage and will endure from generation to generation. This does not mean we only have to raise standards of musical taste to improve our Sunday morning fare, but it does mean we must provide opportunities for listeners to improve their taste by becoming acquainted with the great masters.

Shaw’s final criterion is the possibility of the music’s being the "creative miracle of revelation." "The higher consciousness of the great artist," Shaw explains, "is evidenced not only by his capacity for ordering his experience but also by having his experience." We may not have had a certain composer’s experience, but we can recognize his or her attitude and relate it to our own. "Art exists to convey that which cannot be otherwise conveyed," says Shaw.

In the conclusion of Shaw’s inaugural sermon he told the congregation that there would be no prelude, offertory or postlude in the church’s new order of worship. To Shaw, music selected for worship is far too important to be used merely to cover up a congregation’s entering and leaving. He wanted, he said, to create each Sunday morning "out of worthy things, a wholeness of beauty and truth, an integrity of sound and sight and reason, which shall be its own reason for being here." Then that hour can be a place where "the whole man, in the company and affection of his fellow man, honestly may love the Lord his God with all his heart and all his soul and all his mind."

The miracle of symphonic and choral sound can turn thousands of listeners and performers into a rare community. This can happen at any time, in any setting. In 1962 the Robert Shaw Chorale sang Bach’s B Minor Mass in the U.S.S.R. The performance was broadcast to all the iron-curtain countries. As Shaw recalls (in Joseph A. Mussulman’s book Dear People.. . Robert Shaw Indiana University Press, 19791) , "For three hours the only fare available to this ‘materialistic,’ atheistic,’ ‘eye-to-the-future’ audience was an ageless monument of Christian creed, philosophy and art.

The arts help us express and communicate ideas in a way not possible through words. The feeling and intensity expressed in a piece of music may be remembered long after the sermon is forgotten. "If any one man understood ‘Lord our God have mercy,’ Bach did; or ‘I believe in one baptism,’ Bach did; or Grant us peace,’ Bach did."

The arts are the hand of humanity reaching out to others in a world of persecution, indifference and terror. The arts can set us free, unlike our technological, image-making society, which seeks to control us. "The arts may be not the luxury of the few, but the last, best hope of humanity to inhabit with joy this planet," says Shaw, who sometimes refers to the liberal arts as the "conservative" arts because they are the things that really "conserve" us.

It is the nature of music, unlike painting and most of literature, that its final creation is not its original creation. Music needs to be sounded, to be sung. In this sense, the composer literally must leave his work to be finished by others... . Can you imagine Michelangelo asking us to come in and help him finish the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Us and our dirty little daubers?

Regarding the St. Matthew Passion he wrote to chorus members:

We are not engaged in the dramatization of the death -- and triumph -- of Jesus. But by the dignity and integrity of this great music, the spirit of which reaches out to touch that of Jesus himself, we are forced to acknowledge our participation in that death and triumph. The Passion music is not dramatic in the theatrical sense of acting a part. It is drama in the cosmic sense -- of being a part. It is not a series of masques to be put on and manipulated to the maximum "effect." It is -- if you are sufficiently mystic -- a sort of Eucharist whose physical properties issue in something quite transcending time and place.

It seems to me. therefore, treacherous and abortive to superimpose the imagined excitements of a given crowd on a given day by the devices of accelerando, ritardando and dynamic effect. By the spiritual genius of Bach the greater drama is already built into the musical structure. It is wrong to play the pit; the people must be brought to the music.

Four weeks later he wrote again, wanting to be certain his singers understood the important role the chorus played.

It is as though there were a theatre on the stage of which a play is being acted -- and that is one drama. In the hall of the theatre there is an audience, and this audience interrupts the actors on stage -- and that is the second drama. And somewhere above this theatre watching both these dramas stand you and I. And at incredible moments (think what craftsmanship this represents on Bach’s part) . . the actors on the stage are suddenly frozen, their posture or gesture transfixed, the audience in an instant is turned to stone, time holds breath, and you and I become a part of this great drama -- that of the meanings of things and events, of love and hate, of living and killing -- a drama before and beyond time, before even this particular Passion, yet known to us here and now.

To sing under Shaw in the preparation of a major work is a privilege, an act of worship, a two-and-a-half-hour sweatshop session and an uplifting creative experience. If one dares to let one’s mind wander, Shaw will confront that singer with his piercing blue eyes and a "how could you?" look. An uncompromising conductor who lifts up the highest musical standards for orchestra and chorus, Shaw, with his visceral yet sensitive conducting style, inspires his musicians to attain his goals. "People, this just has to happen!" he prods. He balances his meticulous score preparation and rehearsal demands with a boundless childlike enthusiasm and contagious joy for each new work.

Shaw’s life has been interwoven into the developments of American music for over half a century, and his influence on choral music will be felt for decades. Because of his teaching, the music life in the cities where he has worked is healthy and strong. Those who direct their own choirs come away from singing in Shaw’s choruses with renewed enthusiasm and the tools for teaching rhythm, pronunciation and tonal sonority.

Now retired as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Shaw has recently been engaged in two projects. One is Emory University’s day-long seminars, "Saturdays at the Robert Shaw Institute," inaugurated in October 1988, for musicians to study, prepare and sing six familiar sacred choruses with Shaw. The other event, held this past July and likely to be offered again, was his conducting the Bordeaux Symphony Orchestra for a choral seminar in connection with the St. Céré Festival in the Dordogne River Valley in France.

Shaw has occupied the most prestigious podiums in the country while being painfully aware of the sorrow, tragedy and racial divisions in our society. "We believe," he once wrote, "that in a world of political, economic and personal disintegrations, music is not a luxury but a necessity. . . because it is the persistent focus of man’s intelligence, aspiration and good will."

A minister of music to all people, Shaw maintains that the church has a responsibility to the arts. In an October 1987 address to Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on "Worship and the Arts," Shaw commented that in a world beset with a multitude of problems,

the arts may provide the day-by-day confirmation of Creation’s finger still at work in the lives and affairs of men . . . the church., if it wants to keep in touch with the Creator, must provide a home for all that is and all who are created, lest the church itself wither and drift into irrelevance.

Shaw’s outstanding musicianship, deeply spiritual and human qualities and sense of mission have inspired those whose lives he has touched to carry on his legacy and his ministry with love, devotion and integrity.