Robert Shaw and the Brahms Requiem

No other piece of music captivated iconic conductor Robert Shaw more than the Brahms  Requiem. A symposium presented by Chorus America in honor of the Shaw centenary explored the conductor’s deep connection to this masterwork—and what it reveals about his approach to music and his legacy.

Near the end of a life driven by passion and painstaking preparation, conductor Robert Shaw was completing a new English translation of one of his signature pieces, the Brahms Requiem. His death on January 25, 1999 came just weeks before a planned recording session with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which he had intended to conduct.

Shaw’s longtime personal assistant, Nola Frink, was by his side as he struggled to find the right syllable for every note. One of the last sections they worried over was the final movement: “Blessed are the dead … that they rest now from their labors and that their works follow after them.” To this day, Frink can’t listen to those words and that music without thinking of Shaw.

Shaw Symposium Online Resources

The Brahms Requiem: Questions for the Conductor
Along with questions about his musical and textual motivation, Brahms left several other issues to puzzle over—from interpretive matters like tempo to more practical programming concerns. Symposium faculty share insights into specific concerns conductors ought to address as they prepare the Requiem.

My First German Requiem
Music journalist Matthew Sigman writes about his first experience of the Brahms Requiem: the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s spring performance at Carnegie Hall.

"Heard in the Halls": Robert Shaw's Legacy
Faculty members and participants at Chorus America’s Robert Shaw Centenary Symposium reflect on the qualities that made Shaw a choral icon.

She related the memory in mid-April to an audience that could well appreciate its poignancy, an intimate group of choral musicians assembled in Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center for the Robert Shaw Centenary Symposium on the Brahms Requiem, presented by Chorus America and hosted by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (ASO). The gathering, held just in advance of the 100th anniversary of Shaw’s birth, was a first for Chorus America. Symposium chair André Thomas, director of choral activities at Florida State University, dreamed that for the participants, it would feel something like sitting around the table with the renowned mentor Nadia Boulanger, a chance for them to spend four days immersed in the genius of Brahms and one of his greatest interpreters, Robert Shaw.

“He changed our profession, he changed choral music in the United States of America,” says Ann Howard Jones, a symposium faculty member who assisted Shaw with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus in the 1980s and ‘90s and went on to direct choral activities at Boston University. Because she was associated with Shaw for so long, she feels a responsibility to help younger conductors understand “why we revere this man so. He was the most significant figure in our profession for 40 years.”

Robert Shaw rehearsing the Atlanta Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

For Jones, the most important lesson to pass along at the symposium was Shaw’s “commitment to the symbols on the page as being what the composer wanted to hear.” Prior to Shaw, Jones argued, American choral music was “too much about the conductor—the ‘Westminster sound,’ the ‘St. Olaf sound.’ Shaw changed all that.”

Shaw rehearsalRobert Shaw rehearsing the Atlanta Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

That Shaw would be working on the Brahms Requiem as he neared his death seems almost preordained. According to Craig Jessop, another faculty member, “No one conducted more performances of the Requiem or lavished more care on it than Robert Shaw.” The former music director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and current dean of Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University. Jessop apprenticed with Shaw during the 1980s, and stepped in to conduct the 1999 recording of Shaw’s Requiem translation in the wake of Shaw’s death.  He says it was no accident Shaw was drawn to the Requiem. Jessop considers it “the pinnacle of craftsmanship” in composition for chorus. The logic of the voice leading “is as inevitable as if decreed from heaven.”

Shaw was famously obsessive in his efforts to understand composers’ intentions and distill them for his singers. Sometimes he communicated these ideas through letters, many of them included in the 1996 Shaw biography, Dear People. In advance of a 1972 performance of the Brahms Requiem, he wrote to the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, “As artists—and as human beings—our concern is not with how we feel about death or the textual imagery of the German Requiem, but how Brahms felt about these things. And the way we learn about his feelings is by learning to ‘speak’ his language—as perfectly and trustingly as we can.”

Origins and Structure of the Requiem

What was going on in Brahms’s life and work at the time he wrote the Requiem? How do its origins, Brahms’s choice of texts, and the work’s performance history contribute to our understanding? For answers to those questions, Shaw would have sought someone with the expertise of yet another symposium faculty member, musicologist Michael Musgrave. Musgrave teaches graduate-level courses in critical editing at the Juilliard School, and one of his contributions to a new edition of Brahms’s complete works will be the Requiem.

After its official premiere in Bremen on Good Friday, 1868, Ein deutsches Requiem made Brahms’s name, Musgrave told symposium participants. “It was stunningly original. He must have been preoccupied with it for a long time. But he didn’t want us to know much about it.” An 1865 letter to his dear friend Clara Schumann provides the first recorded evidence of its existence. He sent her the fourth movement, and described the first and second movements. But he destroyed his sketches of the work, so scholars like Musgrave are left to puzzle over what inspired this unique masterpiece and how it all came together.

During this period of his career, Brahms was paying close attention to Bach, Schütz, and the Lutheran choral tradition. “He found in that music qualities he was not finding in the music of his own time,” says Musgrave. “The Wagnerians were telling you what the future was; Brahms was hobnobbing with scholars, unearthing music nobody knew.” Musgrave dismisses the claim of Brahms’s first biographer, Max Kalbeck, that the Requiem began as a cantata, instead favoring a somewhat related explanation from German conductor Siegfried Ochs. In his reminiscences, Ochs recalls Brahms saying the Requiem’s first and second movements contain elements of a well-known chorale. Although Brahms did not point to the precise source, Ochs decided he was referring to Bach’s chorale “Wer nur den lieben Gott.”  

Moving to the nearby piano, Musgrave played the tune in question, familiar to Lutherans as the hymn “If thou but suffer God to guide thee.” The comparison was convincing. The harmonic progression and sarabande-like rhythm evoke the Requiem’s second movement funeral march. “Some of my colleagues think I’m crazy,” admits Musgrave, “but I’m convinced Ochs was right. The chorale lay at the root of the Requiem.”

The funeral march got Brahms going, Musgrave surmises. It gave the composer a sense of how massive the piece would be. From there, he speculates, the piece grew gradually, a series of considered and rejected ideas. To Musgrave, the familiar fourth movement, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,” seems an “odd man out.” Did Brahms compose it at an earlier time? In any case, if he began the Requiem by intending to create a chorale-based work in the tradition of Bach, he soon abandoned the idea, says Musgrave, because that influence reappears only in the sixth movement.

Shaw Requiem score
The first page of Shaw's annotated score of the Requiem from his tenure with the Atlanta Symphony.

Although the fifth movement was not performed till 1869, ten months after the Bremen premiere, Musgrave does not believe it was a late addition to the other six movements, as some have claimed. He feels the touching soprano solo “transforms the entire work.”  The reason for holding it back, he suspects, is that Brahms needed the reassurance of a successful premiere before unveiling this section of the piece.

Throughout his session on the Requiem’s origins, Musgrave made it a point to pause occasionally to remind his listeners how little about the work’s creation we really know. “All you can do is use musical instincts and question,” Musgrave acknowledged. “But you must make it clear if you’re not absolutely sure so the next generation knows where they stand. That’s the sign of scholarship.”

Brahms was “a structural composer,” according to Musgrave, and as such he would think about the totality of the work. “The structure of the Requiem is such a powerful thing, the way the end brings back the beginning” through inversions and use of identical text: “Selig sind….” Ann Howard Jones took this opportunity for some practical advice: “Structural analysis is the nitty-gritty of our work.” The analysis starts big and goes lower and lower, she says. “In the first movement, there’s a big A and a coda. Within those large sections, look for cadences to determine where the divisions are.” While looking at structure, don’t get distracted by the text, Jones counsels. That aspect of the Requiem deserves its own attention.

A “Human” Choice of Texts

Brahms’s choice of texts is central to the Requiem’s originality. Abandoning the conventional Latin liturgy, he used his intimate knowledge of scripture to select 15 passages from the German Bible and the Apocrypha that would express his own beliefs. Musgrave describes him as a “cultural Christian”; Brahms referred to himself as “a heathen.” Absent from his Requiem are both the specter of eternal damnation and the promise of redemption through Christ’s sacrifice.

The contradictions in Brahms’s theology—religious skepticism combined with undeniable spirituality—appealed deeply to Robert Shaw, according to Craig Jessop. “Shaw was drawn to the texts Brahms selected; he dissected and researched all of them.” Jessop remembers especially how Shaw responded to the text from Revelation Brahms used in the final movement: “I don’t know if the soul is immortal, but I do know your good works will follow after you.”

Brahms once stated it would be as well to call the work A Human Requiem. Its greatest message, says Musgrave, is a message of comfort, especially apparent in the fifth movement soprano solo, which quotes Isaiah: “I will comfort you as a mother would.” Although Brahms did not like people asking him about it, Musgrave says everyone in the composer’s circle believed he wrote this movement for his own mother, who died in February 1868.

Because Brahms chose his own text to express his personal sentiments, Musgrave says text and music go hand in hand in a way they cannot when a composer is assigned a text to work with. “He was not so much setting texts as realizing them,” he told symposium participants—a comment that inspired fellow faculty member Leonard Ratzlaff to chime in: “This text is replete with tone painting,” he said, citing the sudden key change in the sixth movement after the baritone sings “in einem Augenblick”—“in the blink of an eye.” For Ratzlaff, who teaches choral conducting at the University of Alberta, it provided an object lesson for the conductors in the room: “At some point, it’s important to have a micro look at the text, what it inspired the composer to write, harmonically and melodically.”

ASO Carnegie Hall
Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

In the 1870s the Brahms Requiem received “endless performances,” says Musgrave, including premieres in London in 1871 and New York in 1877. By 1872 its text had been translated into English. As Shaw pondered his own translation in 1999, Jessop assumes his motivation must have been the same as it was 40 years earlier when he created an English version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. At the time, Shaw wrote, “Bach’s first concern was to affirm and quicken a faith…. That is truly possible only when the story and its meaning are told in the living language of the singer and listener.” Still, says Jessop, Shaw struggled because he could not let go of the fear that he would do “injury to the music itself.” Jessop remembers Shaw saying, “‘Rarely do music and text meet on the same high level, but in Brahms they do.’”

Leading the Rehearsal

For Shaw, rehearsal time was precious. So he would prepare obsessively, anticipating issues with balance, pitch, and rhythm, and so on. “Most of us would say, ‘Well, we’ll adjust that when we hear it.’” observes Jones. “He would never do that.” In working on a piece, Shaw guided his singers through the music painstakingly, one facet at a time. Jones learned from Shaw that this systematic building of discipline and attention to detail are essential, because such efforts can result in an unrivalled beauty and clarity of sound. “One doesn’t have time not to do that,” she said of his meticulous planning.

Shaw’s rehearsals for a 1990 Carnegie Hall performance of the Brahms Requiem, captured on video and screened at the symposium, begin with the opening notes, but not with the words “Selig sind.” Instead, the singers intone “One and two and tee and four and, one and two and tee and four and, one and.” The technique, count singing, is often associated with Shaw. Interviewed for the video, he called it “the fastest way to unify sound and find metric divisions,” adding, “you’d be surprised how you can undiscipline a choir by beginning with text the first time.”

Answering a symposium participant’s question, Shaw’s longtime assistant, Norman Mackenzie, current director of choruses at the ASO, explained the rationale for count singing this way: “It’s the principle of building blocks. A large chorus can be a mucilaginous mess. The worst thing you can do is start by trying to sing a piece on pitch. Where does music begin? It begins with the pulse. Take away the dynamics. Take away the text. Place each syllable on the pulse where it belongs. That wakes up people’s listening skills.”

As he watched the rehearsal video, Jessop experienced renewed appreciation for count singing. “As conductors, we so often have to push singers to make the rhythm. What impresses me now, as an older man, is seeing Shaw free to float, to make a vocal line. He has freedom because of the rhythmic discipline.”

ASO Carnegie Hall 2016
After anchoring the Shaw Symposium with their performance, the Atlanta Symphony took the same program to Carnegie Hall a couple weeks later.

Also noteworthy was Shaw’s instruction that singers begin by count singing between pianississimo and pianissimo. That was his custom, say the conductors who worked with him, but Shaw found it absolutely essential with the Requiem. “Vocally, Brahms is as exhausting a piece as a chorus is asked to sing,” he told the video interviewer. “It calls for a depth of tone which is almost unforgiving in its demands. You can’t use that voice to begin rehearsals.” For the Requiem, or any piece, he refused to tax his singers’ voices to achieve balance. If he realized a certain passage was going to require a little more from the first altos, for example, he’d assign some second sopranos to join them for a few measures. Singers were given numbers to represent their voice ranges, starting with 101 for the lowest bass, a tool Shaw used to adjust balances in advance, saving precious rehearsal time.

“He was accused of micromanaging, but that couldn’t be more wrong,” says Mackenzie. Shaw’s approach facilitated his singers’ understanding of structure and their ability to avoid mistakes. “He solved all the challenges long before the first rehearsal of a piece in a way that made total sense to a singer.”

“A Huge Presence”

Nowadays, systematic building of discipline is far less common, and so is the irascible, cantankerous kind of conductor Shaw could sometimes be. While he could be effusive in his praise, says Ratzlaff, he could also be quite sarcastic. Ratzlaff remembers a letter he sent to his chorus following a problem-filled rehearsal during New York’s Mostly Mozart Festival sometime in the early ‘70s. Shaw’s message, as paraphrased by Ratzlaff, read, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s fine whether you come in or not. This will be between the soloists, the audience, and me.” Ratzlaff says the singer next to him vowed he would never perform for Shaw again.

Nola Frink must know how that feels. “I used to say, ‘My job is to get the water ready for him to walk on.’ I nearly drowned many times.” Jones remembers that even a little thing like stumbling over a name would cause him to “take it out on us. It was important for us to make things as easy as possible,” because he could be extremely hard on himself. That may have had something to do with family history. At the time of World War II, Shaw was a New York “playboy,” according to Frink, and his brother was a military chaplain. When his brother was killed, Frink says his mother told him, “‘That should have been you, Robert.’ It tortured him the rest of his life.”

People close to Shaw would put up with his difficult side because, says Jones, “we knew that there was a more profound exposure to the music and exposure to him that was possible.” Craig Jessop remembers him as “a towering intellect, the likes of which I had never encountered. He was a huge presence, physically and spiritually as well.”

In what amounted to a benediction for the symposium, Jessop recalled a Shaw story related to Brahms. Jessop was singing for Shaw in France, and a concert of Brahms songs all related to evening, was to take place in a Toulouse cloister. The event was poorly publicized, so the audience, according to Jessop, consisted only of Shaw’s wife Caroline, a few other people, and a cat. “‘We’re going to do it anyway,’” Shaw decided. “We got to the downbeat of ‘O schöne Nacht,’ and he started to cry. It was about the music and nothing else. I saw in that moment what motivated his entire life. It was his love for this art form. I could see he could channel more than music, but life itself. The memory will stay with me all of my life.”