The British choral tradition: an inspiration for America

American conductor Robert Shafer tells IAM about his love for British choral tradition

The great tradition of British choral singing must be considered one of the singular glories of music history. The enormously high standard set by British conductors and composers has influenced and inspired most if not all northern European countries. Certainly this has had an enormous impact on American choral singing and composition.

I had the great opportunity as a young high-school student to sing many works by the great English Renaissance masters, including unforgettable madrigals by Wilbye, Weelkes and Morley, as well as the great masses and motets of Byrd, Tallis and Gibbons. Then, as a young student musician in the early sixties, I was enormously impressed by the great tradition of choral singing at King’s College, Cambridge, directed by the marvellous choral genius, Sir David Willcocks.

In fact, the wonderful symphonic choirs throughout Great Britain were a tremendous inspiration. I had a transforming musical experience in the spring of 1964 when, at the age of 18, I heard one of the first American performances of Britten’s War Requiem at Washington National Cathedral, conducted by Paul Callaway.

Those experiences led me into a music career, and I have now been a professional choral conductor in Washington, DC, for the past 50 years. I have had the great opportunity to serve as a choral educator, church musician and conductor of choirs large and small, amateur and professional. Inspired by my early exposure to the great British choral tradition, I have regularly performed many British works, from Handel oratorios to the mystical masterpieces of Sir John Tavener.

Robert Shafer conducting the City Choir of Washington
Robert Shafer conducting the City Choir of Washington


I have also conducted many of the 20th century British masterpieces, among them Kennedy Center performances of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and Dona nobis pacem, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, the great A Child of Our Time by Sir Michael Tippett, and – in my opinion – the greatest work of the 20th century for choir and orchestra, Britten’s War Requiem.

In fact, this piece was a milestone in my career, as I had the great honour of seeing my live recording of War Requiem win the Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance in 2000. I also had the honour of preparing Tippett’s A Child of Our Time for Sir Neville Marriner in a performance with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

One of the great inspirations for my own choral compositions has been the music of John Tavener, and over the years I have performed many of his major works for choir and orchestra. In 2012, I obtained a grant from the Legatum Institute in London to commission a major work from Sir John that resulted in his wonderful Three Poems of George Herbert and Tolstoy’s Creed. I conducted the world premiere of these pieces in April of 2013 at Washington National Cathedral. These were some of his final works, as he died in September of that same year. The City Choir of Washington will be singing Tolstoy’s Creed on its British concert tour this July.

I am only one of many American conductors to have been enormously inspired by both the choral standard of performance and unforgettable choral compositions by British choral conductors and composers. All of us in the United States and so many of our colleagues around the world owe Britain an enormous debt of gratitude.

Robert Shafer leads the City Choir of Washington on its debut UK tour this July.