The Collegiate Chorale has remained one of America's finest permanent choirs since its founding in 1941.
Robert Shaw, America's greatest choral director and one of the finest in music history, had unexpectedly found his true vocation in music at Pomona College when, as a freshman student headed towards the ministry, he was asked to conduct the college glee club. He did a fine job, was heard by Fred Waring, the leader of Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, a choir specializing in popular music. He hired Shaw to work on the conducting and rehearsal staff of his organization.
But Shaw had a desire to conduct classical music. To this end he founded an amateur choir of more than 150 members. He named it the "Collegiate Chorale" because it held its earliest rehearsals in the Marble Collegiate Church of New York.
From the beginning, the Chorale was noted for its racial diversity in an age when segregation on stage was all too common. Shaw called it "a melting pot that sings." Throughout World War II it remained difficult to maintain continuity, as members were constantly moving and being replaced when they were drafted or families were moved.
Shaw was known as a demanding leader, who often posted exhortatory letters to his singers, starting, "Dear People…," which became the title of one of his biographies. One of the most famous was addressed to the Collegiate Chorale members in 1943. In part, it read, "I get a horrible picture, from the way you sing, of little bitty eighth notes running like hell all over the place to keep from begin stepped on. Millions of 'em! Meek, squeaky little things. No self-respect. Standing in corners, hiding behind doors, ducking into subway stations, peering out from under rugs. Refugees. Dammit, you're all a bunch of Whole-Note Nazis."
He also wrote, "You don't join the Collegiate Chorale. You believe it. It's very damn near a religion."
Shaw's work with the Chorale led to his being engaged to prepare the chorus for Toscanini in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth, resulting in Toscanini publicly proclaiming Shaw "The maestro I have been waiting for." In 1948, Shaw founded his own Robert Shaw Chorale, a fully professional outfit, and left on two decades of nearly continuous touring.
The Collegiate Chorale by then was firmly established, and conducted not only its own series of choral concerts, but joined orchestras in concerts conducted by such maestros as Beecham, Mitropoulos, Bernstein, Koussevitzky, Maazel, and Mehta. It became famous for its presentation of new choral music, including works of such composers as Britten, Barber, Copland, Hindemith, and Sessions. Among its famous recordings of this era were Leonard Bernstein's Columbia recordings of Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Mahler's Symphony no 2.
Subsequent music directors have been Margaret Hillis, Abraham Kaplan, and Richard Westenburg and, since 1980, Robert Bass. Under his leadership the Chorale has continued its tradition of innovative programming. It joined the Juilliard American Opera Center in the New York premiere of Roger Sessions' Montezuma. Other neglected works brought to New York by the Chorale include Richard Strauss' Friedenstag, Respighi's La Fiamma, Schubert's Fierrabras, and Dvorák's Dmitri. Its Koch recording of Friedenstag was on the classical top-25 chart.
The Collegiate Chorale often participates in benefit and charity concerts, including Oxfam America, the Dole Foundation for Equal Employment of People with Disabilities, and Classical Action.