Last year, my husband gave me an Ipod, and it's changed my life. If you are a mom, listening to music is one of those pleasures that goes away with motherhood--like Sunday morning sleep-ins, or leisurely caffe lattes. You play music in the car and the kids hate your choice, so Elmo it is. At home, there's always stuff to do, and the background noise is incredible. Listening to music--really listening--used to require sitting still with a CD player and headphones, and it required peace and quiet. I had the CD and the headphones, but the sitting still part....rarely happened. Then I got the Ipod, and I discovered I tunes, and the pleasures of downloading, and the fact that one can fold laundry and load the dishwasher and do all kinds of things while in a musical world of your own. I began to listen to pieces I hadn't really listened to in years. And this is where Robert Shaw comes in.
Robert Shaw, in case you don't know him--and any serious classical music enthusiast will--was the pre-eminent choral music conductor of our time. I might never have heard of him, either, except that I was lucky enough to be born in the suburbs of Atlanta at a time when he was the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. I went to public school in Fulton County, which at the time was no great exemplar of academic achievement--but it did have a terrific county-wide music program, led by a man whose name I recall as Eugene Robinson, and Mr. Robinson (who was extremely handsome and thus the object of many schoolgirl crushes) had an in with Robert Shaw. As a consequence, there were those of us with decent voices who participated in a lot of choral activities down at Symphony Hall under the direction of Robert Shaw. It was, I now realize, a most singular piece of extraordinary good fortune.
I don't remember all the things we did with Mr. Shaw (he was always "Mr. Shaw," and we were scared to death of him) but I do recall the Beethoven Bicentennial, which would have been in 1970, where we sang, among other things, "Christ on the Mount of Olives" and the "Kyrie" from his Mass in C Major. There were other concerts, including a Christmas concert from some year that escapes me, at which we sang the "Hallelujah Chorus" (of course), "The Shepherd's Farewell" from Hector Berlioz's "L'Enfance Du Christ" and "Dona Nobis Pacem" (Give Us Peace) from Bach's Mass in B Minor. (I mention these in detail in case anybody wants to download; they're all contained on Shaw's Choral Masterpieces album.)
I remembered these things, of course, but I had filed them away in the back of my mind until one day recently I decided to find them on I tunes and download them. I was walking across the parking lot to Sears, as a matter of fact, when I plugged into my Ipod and the first bars of "Christ on the Mount of Olives" came in. I still remembered most of the alto part. But what struck me then was the memory of my mother sitting in the audience (my sister wasn't interested, and my dad stayed home with her). For the first time, I thought about what it would have been like to be her at that moment, and to hear that amazing music, and to see her daughter up there on the stage helping make it. I could put myself in her place, and if it had been me, watching one of my own daughters, I think my heart would have burst. Maybe hers did.
The gift Mr. Shaw gave me was not just the gift of music, which would have been rich enough; it was the gift of a kind of spiritual insight which it took years--decades--to ripen in me. Now I am 51, and I suffer from depression, and in recent months it's been particularly bad (with brief episodes of lucidity). But the consolation of music is not just a phrase; it's real. It is balm to my soul; it is water on arid soil. Mr. Shaw did not condescend to us; the works that he chose for us to sing appear on some of his best-known recordings, sung by some of the best voices ever assembled in one place. They are also, many of them, about pain that is impossible to put into words: the longing for peace, the longing for transcendence. Ecstasy. In a dark time, these are pieces of light.
Robert Shaw died in 1999, and just before his death he led a performance of Beethoven's 9th Sympthony at the Kennedy Center in Washington that is legendary for its brilliance. Grown men wept. I was living in Washington then and I had a chance to go, but I let life get in the way, a three-year-old underfoot, the tickets were expensive, and I thought: next time. There would be no next time. I wouldn't have been able to get close enough to say thank you anyway, so this will have to do. Thank you, Mr. Shaw. Thank you.