In our recent letter to readers on COVID-19, we wrote that we hoped TAI could offer an oasis in these troubled times, with culture writing that “is not so much diversion as nourishment.” In that spirit, TAI will be interviewing members of its community (and beyond) who we believe embody well-rounded lives of service and achievement.
This week, Robert Shafer—a Grammy-winning conductor, composer, and artistic director of the City Choir of Washington—speaks with TAI about his life in music, from his early training with Nadia Boulanger to his admiration for Lady Gaga to his latest composition, inspired by COVID-19. (This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)
Jeffrey Gedmin for TAI: Let’s start with a person who has played an important role in your musical development, Nadia Boulanger. She was your teacher of composition and also taught many of the greats of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland and Elliot Carter. What accounts for her enormous influence?
Robert Shafer: What made her totally unique in my mind was that she helped you find your own voice as a composer. A lot of composers will impose their own style. What sounds wrong to them is governed by their own compositional technique. They just teach those rules to their students and if the student violates that technique, they’re going to be corrected.
Nadia was completely different. She spent a lot of time getting to know her students—not just on a personal basis but getting to know what’s inside their minds, hearts, and souls. When I applied to the Conservatory in Fontainebleau, I was required to send several scores to see if I was accepted. I was accepted, and for the first three or four weeks of that session in 1969, she sought to know what made me tick, as a human being and as a musician.
We also took solfège classes. Solfège entails sight-reading, rhythmic exercises, and ear training, so you can hear very complex chords and identify all the pitches in them. We studied to sharpen our musical skills, but with her it was all about who I was and my language as a composer. Once she understood that, then she could help me speak that language better, with a greater vocabulary. She would suggest, “Well, I think you’re trying to do what Stravinsky did in this particular piece, so go study that.” Sometimes she would just plain say, “That note is wrong.” I remember one time asking, “Why?” and she said, “It’s a mystery, but I know for absolute fact that it’s wrong and I can’t tell you why.” After thinking about it and struggling with this one note for a whole week, I finally figured out the problem; I needed a newer, fresher note.
In short, she wasn’t just saying it was wrong in terms of her musical culture, but that it was wrong in terms of mine. I wasn’t speaking my voice “with truth,” as she would say. Ultimately she made us realize that the greatest music is a mystery. You can study the Mass in B Minor until you’re blue in the face and never know quite what makes it a masterpiece. We just have to behold it and be blessed by it; have our lives changed by it.
TAI: Can you recall specifically your first encounter with her? What were you expecting and how did you experience her?
RS: I remember it vividly. We arrived at the conservatory about three days before it opened. The first year, you had to go through a battery of tests, which helped her make the final decisions as to who she would accept as private students. So I took the tests and on Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. we all anxiously went to the bulletin board to see who was on Mademoiselle’s schedule for the first week. And there my name was, nine o’clock on Tuesday was my conducting lesson and Friday at three was my composition lesson.
So I went on Tuesday morning to her door. The conservatory was in the Louis XV wing of the palace in Fontainebleau which had been a hunting lodge for the kings of France. Her apartment was on the second floor, as you face the famous horseshoe staircase where Napoleon said farewell to his army before going to Elba. I rang the doorbell and I heard this very deep bass voice: “Entrez.” I’m very nervous, I’m 22 years old, fresh off the plane from the U.S., and studying with the greatest music teacher in the world. She says, “Is it Shahfer?” She called me Shahfer, she never got it straight, but that didn’t matter. I said, “Yes Mademoiselle, it’s Shafer, Robert Shafer.”
Then I heard her hand brush a few notes on the top half of the keyboard, somewhere an octave or two above middle C. She said, “What notes did I play?” At that time, my perfect pitch was still intact, so I told her. She then took her left hand and brushed some notes down below middle C. “What notes did I play then?” I told her. She said “Good, you may enter.” I entered the apartment and walked over to her piano, and she said “I was not absolutely sure from your examinations the quality of your ears.” I said, “Well, I hope that they are sufficient.” “Oh yes, you’ll be excellent,” she said. But I’ll never forget being stopped at the door abruptly and gruffly asked to identify these notes she brushed at the piano. Talk about intimidating!
Nevertheless she was such a marvelous teacher. She was very severe in her demands. She would not budge when she demanded something of you. She would sometimes push you to the breaking point and some people unfortunately could not continue studying with her. It was just too intense and relentless. Most teachers, when they reach a point where they realize a student is not capable, will just stop because it’s too frustrating for both parties. She wouldn’t stop and the only resolution was to accept her approach or to withdraw from private lessons.
Luckily I had a strong constitution and by pushing myself to the limit, I grew. You either get better or you collapse. That’s not fashionable in education today, where it seems we’re there more to entertain the students than to teach them anything.
TAI: You could have chosen any number of musical specialties, but you selected conducting early in your career, and you chose to focus on choral music. Why these two?
RS: It was something that chose me. My bachelor’s degree is in piano performance and my first aspiration was to be a concert pianist. Van Cliburn won the famous international Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow when I was in early high school, and it was news around the world that an American had won. I was so excited about that and I thought of Van Cliburn as a role model.
I went to Catholic University to study piano. As I was finishing a master’s degree in composition there was a job opening at Madison High School in Fairfax County, VA, where I had actually studied. I knew the choir director there, and he had opened my eyes to a whole world of choral music. I learned about all the great choral works—Mass in B Minor of Bach, Handel’s Messiah, Brahms’ German Requiem. I still wanted to be a concert pianist, but I applied and got the job.
I was scared and people were saying nobody could replace my predecessor, especially some 22-year-old college piano major. But I was very driven. I can be stubborn and determined to a great degree. I was determined not to go into this saying, “Well, I’ll just do the best that I can.” No, I was going to be as good as he was in my first year. My predecessor had taken his students to Carnegie Recital Hall in New York City a couple of times during his six years. I took them up there in June 1969, at the end of my first year, and got a rave review in the New York Times. I grew immensely during that year and was getting more and more into conducting, specifically choral conducting.
When I was 25, I was asked to apply for the position of Music Director of The Oratorio Society of Montgomery County. They had been directed by a medical doctor, who was a brilliant physician but an amateur musician. They had commissioned a piece by Russell Woollen the year before. Since I had performed his music during my time at Madison, he knew me and gave me a really strong endorsement. I got the job in the spring of 1971. Later on, The Oratorio Society of Montgomery County became the Oratorio Society of Washington, and then became the Washington Chorus. I was with them for 35 years, and we won two Grammys.
I think that opportunities sometimes present themselves that may not have been in one’s original life plan. If you’re intelligent, adaptable, and have a wide curiosity, you can make it work. I’m interested in all music. I’m a composer and a performer on keyboard, organ, and harpsichord. I believe that conductors must be superb musicians. Composers don’t make much money at all, unless you’re an Aaron Copland or Igor Stravinksy. However, I was also fortunate to teach for 33 years at Shenandoah University and Conservatory. I’ve done 27 European tours in my career. It’s just incredible to perform music where it was originally created, and sing it in the original acoustics.
TAI: What about popular music? Do you have particular likes or dislikes—whether it’s folk, pop, rock, blues, or jazz?
RS: Oh, sure. I’ve always loved jazz, for instance. It’s almost as complex and fascinating from the technical point of view as classical music.
I love George Gershwin; I think Porgy and Bess is the greatest American opera and one of the greatest operas ever composed, period. By the way, guess who Gershwin decided to study with back in the 20s? Nadia Boulanger. He went over there in the mid-1920s and she told him after a few months, “You are a genius and I cannot teach you anything. What you do in the language you speak, which I do not speak, is the equivalent of what Mozart did in his language. Just go back home and be George Gershwin.”
Mick Jagger also went over and had a few lessons in the early years of The Rolling Stones. Jagger is extremely intelligent, and she told him much the same thing: I can’t help you to make The Rolling Stones better, but I believe you have the ability to speak that language already and it will only evolve. The famous jazz musician Quincy Jones also studied a couple of years with her and learned a great deal. He was studying classical music and learned to apply classical techniques to his film scores.
One of my favorite singers is Lady Gaga. She is a great jazz singer. I’ve heard her do duets with Tony Bennett that are just unbelievable. Their jazz minds are so similar and they’re practically improvising on the stage. They’re both so creative and intelligent.
That’s what it is all about, ultimately. No matter the musical style that you’re considering, is it original? Is it creative? Mademoiselle used to say, “You can have vices all you want but just don’t be mediocre. Music cannot tolerate mediocrity.”
TAI: Finally, what can you tell us about the composition that you have been working on?
RS: It just went off to the printer and The City Choir of Washington is going to premiere it next February. I was inspired by these conditions that we are all living through now with COVID-19. There are millions of people unemployed. People are feeling distraught and tense. I was thinking about my own situation, as a conductor who can’t conduct right now. I said “I need to write a piece that tries to express these feelings. I have the time!”
My daughter-in-law is the music director at a local church where I’m the organist. She was sending out notices to the choir during the Sundays in Lent leading up to Easter. On the third Sunday of Lent, one of the readings is from Psalm 137, which recalls the Jewish people being held captive by the Babylonians, who demanded that they sing and play their harps. The Jewish people refused because they were being held as prisoners. The first two verses describe the Jews sitting by the river Babylon, where many willow trees grew. They wept and hung up their harps in the willow trees.
It’s a very expressive and musically suggestive text. As I read it, I saw the piece form in my mind. When I’m inspired to write, I tend to see the whole piece at once. I don’t know what all the notes are going to be, but I know the basic structure and what its architecture will be. At this point, I know the feelings I want to express, even if all the details and specific notes aren’t there yet.
For three weeks, of intense 12-hour days, I wrote the piece. For some composers it’s more like a job; they go to the office, they put in whatever hours they can, and then eventually it gets done. I am completely the opposite. Once inspiration strikes, I burn with white-hot intensity until it’s done. That’s why I can’t compose full-time. It’s a completely different intensity than when you’re conducting, teaching, or leading up to a concert.
I was so excited about completing the piece. Surely, it was worth the struggle, the intensity, the long hours, and being so frustrated over one note that I can’t sleep all night. We’re all living through this pandemic together, and it has affected the lives of musicians in a particular way. The world has been turned upside down. We create music for other people to hear. We are not part of a social distancing occupation. It is against our nature to put down our instruments and not sing our songs. We feel like weeping. Psalm 137 is a perfect text to express what we are going through now.