Composer/Conductor  David  Van Vactor
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



David Van Vactor, the son of David Ellsworth Van Vactor, an inventor, housebuilder, factory owner, Church of Christ minister, and Mathilda Fenstermacher Van Vactor, was born in Plymouth, Indiana on May 8, 1906. He completed three years in pre-medicine at Northwestern University before enrolling in the School of Music there. At Northwestern, he earned the Bachelor of Music degree in 1928 and the Master of Music in 1935. He was a flute student of Arthur Kitti in the Chicago area. He studied composition with Anne Oldberg, Mark Wessel, Ernst Nolte, and Leo Sowerby. In Europe, he studied at the Wiener Akademie in Austria in 1929 and L'Ecole Normale of Paris in 1931. These studies prepared him for a long and fruitful career as composer, conductor, flutist, and teacher.

        The songs written in 1926 and 1927 are his earliest compositions. The first orchestral work, Chaconne for String Orchestra, was written in 1928; it was performed the same year by the Rochester Symphony conducted by Howard Hanson. While in Vienna in 1929, Van Vactor studied flute with Josef Niedermayr and composition with Franz Schmitt and harmony with Arnold Schoenberg. That year he composed the Five Small Pieces for Large Orchestra and Ten Variations on a Theme by Beethoven for Flute and Piano.

vanvactor         In 1930 he composed several more songs and the Overture Cristobal Colon. From this point on his composition career progressed steadily. In 1931 he traveled to Paris to study flute with Marcel Moyse and composition with Paul Dukas. The Masque of Red Death won honorable mention in the 1932 Swift Competition in Chicago. On his return from Europe he began his professional career as a flutist with the Chicago Symphony, a position he held for the next thirteen years. He was also assistant conductor of the Chicago Civic Orchestra in 1933 and 1934. Van Vactor received the Frederick Stock Scholarship in conducting in 1939 and became Dr. Stock's protegé with the Chicago Symphony until Stock's death in 1942. From 1936 to 1943, he taught theory and conducted the chamber orchestra at his alma mater, Northwestern University. He started composing the First Symphony in April 1936 and completed it in July 1937. It won a prize of one thousand dollars in a competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. The first performance was given by that orchestra at Carnegie Hall on January 19,1939 with the composer conducting.

        During this productive period Van Vactor composed the Five Bagatelles for Strings, commissioned by Daniel Saidenberg for The Saidenberg Sinfonietta. Van Vactor's most often performed composition, Overture to a Comedy, No. 2, was written in 1941 and won the Juilliard Publication Prize in 1942. It was first performed by the Indianapolis Symphony. Performances followed by the Montreal Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, National Symphony, Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, St. Louis Symphony, and the San Francisco Orchestra. His Quintet for Flute and Strings won the Society for American Music Publication Award in 1941.

       Under the sponsorship of the United States Department of State and the League of Composers, Van Vactor made four extended tours of South America, as a member of a woodwind quintet in 1941, and as a guest conductor of the orchestras of Rio de Janeiro and Santiago de Chile in 1945,1946, and 1965. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Chile during 1945-46. He had a listing influence on many young Chilean composers. His Sinfonia Breve was performed by the Philharmonic de Santiago, in 1965, the composer conducting. On several occasions in the ensuing years, he conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Palmengarten and Hessian Radio Symphony Orchestras in Frankfurt-am-Main.

       From 1943 to 1947, he served as assistant conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra and head of the Department of Theory and Composition at the Conservatory of Music. Van Vactor's second symphony was composed in 1943 with the title Music for the Marines. It was commissioned by the Sixth Marine Corps and was first performed by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Fabien Sevitzky. During this period, he ran a family farm in Marshall, Missouri, for the war effort. In November 1946 he completed his Introduction and Presto for Strings. This excellent work was first performed by the Allied Arts Orchestra of Kansas City with the composer conducting.

        In 1947, he founded the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where he was a professor until 1976. He also appointed conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in 1947, a post he held for the next twenty-five years. Under his direction, the orchestra experienced a period of growth and technical polish and made its first professional recording for the CRI label.

        The Pastorale and Dance for Flute and Strings was composed in 1947 also. Commissioned by Roy Harris for the Summer Music Festival at Colorado Springs College, it was first performed there with Van Vactor performing and Harris conducting. Van Vactor wrote a somewhat longer version for flute and string quartet.

        April 10, 1951 saw the first performance of the Violin Concerto, his fourth concerto. Previously had written the Concerto for Flute in 1931, the Concerto a Quattro for Three Flutes and Harp in 1935, and the Concerto for Viola, commissioned by Milton Preves and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940. The new violin concerto was first performed with soloist William Starr and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the composer.

        The following years saw the completion of five more symphonies: the third in 1958 and the fourth for chorus and orchestra in March 1971, with the title Walden. The Third Symphony was first performed by William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and Walden received its first performance by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and the Maryville College Concert Choir with the composer conducting. The Fifth Symphony was commissioned as a part of the observance of the American Bicentennial by the Tennessee Arts Commission with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts. It was completed on September 19, 1975, and the first performance was given on March 11, 1976 by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra with Arpad Joo conducting. The Sixth Symphony, of 1980, is in two versions composed more or less simultaneously. The orchestral version was begun in January of 1979 and the band version in February of the same year. The Seventh Symphony followed in 1982.

        The Suite for Orchestra on Chilean Folk Tunes of 1963 was first performed by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Van Vactor's compositional style has been described by Katherine K. Preston in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians: "He writes in a concentrated and economical manner; his music is lyric, and often contrapuntal but unmistakably modern in idiom." He is attracted to traditional forms — passacaglia, chaconne, fugue, sarabande, etc. Dance rhythms are prominent in his works, and marches are often found as last movements.

        In 1957, Van Vactor was awarded a Fulbright grant to study comparative reactions of school children to educational concerts. Every Child May Hear, a book by David Van Vactor and Katherine D. Moore (The University of Tennessee Press, 1960), describes the findings of this project. Among his many awards, David Van Vactor was named "Composer Laureate of Tennessee" by the State Legislature in 1975.

        He was Professor Emeritus of Composition and Flute at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. David Van Vactor and his wife Virginia Landreth, married on May 28, 1931, resided in Knoxville for forty years and after retirement in California. They had two children, daughter Raven Harwood (nee Adriaen Virginia, now deceased) and son David Landreth, living in Boston, Paris, and Normandy.

Biography from Roger Rhodes Music, Ltd. 

Thanks to Pauline S. Bayne & H. Stuart Garrett of the 
  University of Tennessee Music Library, Knoxville, Tennesse
and David L. Van Vactor, son of the composer. 

I contacted David Van Vactor and in mid-March of 1986 we spoke by phone.  At eighty years old, the composer was alert and good-humored, and gladly shared many memories with me.  Occasionally his train of thought would go off into a different direction, and I have left much of that in the text because his reminiscences and pronouncements were so interesting!

When I mentioned that I had studied with Wilbur Simpson, the second bassoon of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he reacted,
Oh, my!  Willy Simpson!  He was my pupil at Northwestern — not in the symphony, of course, but he was in my chamber orchestra there, and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.  He comes from Indiana, and you know I was born in Indiana.  He’s the most charming, boy, and has a lovely wife that I always admired very much.  She is a pretty good cellist.  I paid him a dollar a week.  He and another boy, also a bassoonist, set the orchestra up for me, my chamber orchestra, which I had to do.  Because of my schedule I seldom had time to do it myself.”  I did not say anything at the time, but this was now 1986 and Wilbur had been in the CSO for 40 years!

On the day of our appointment, he had just returned from a visit to the 50th state, and that's where we pick up the conversation . . . . .

BD:    How was your trip back from Hawaii?

DVV:    Oh, it was lovely.  It was a very easy trip, and I had a wonderful time there.  Nice warm weather, of course.

BD:    I envy you because we have the cold weather here in Chicago, I’m afraid.

DVV:    I was wondering how it is in Chicago.  I lived there for many years.

BD:    That’s right, so let’s start there.  You were a pre-med student at Northwestern University.  What caused you to change from pre-med to music?

lutkin DVV:    Do you remember Dean Lutkin [photo at left]?

BD:    I never met him, but I spent a lot of time at Lutkin Hall where his full-sized portrait is grandly displayed in the lobby.

DVV:    How nice.  Well, he was a great friend of mine, and when I was a student we used to go to the Chicago Symphony together quite often.  He was very nice to me, and we just enjoyed each other’s company.  He was a charming old gentleman, Peter Christian Lutkin.  You know the honorary music fraternity, Pi Kappa Lambda?  That’s Peter Christian Lutkin
Pi Kappa Lambda.  I was elected to that its tenth year, a great honor, of course.  One morning, he invited me to his office, very formally, and he said, “Anyone with ordinary intelligence can be a fairly good doctor, but very few people can write tunes.  I don’t want to interfere with your career; I know how you’ve labored in pre-med.  You just shouldn’t waste your life being a doctor, because you can write good tunes!”  So I thanked him.  And I did write some of my little things first as a student, so he just convinced me right away.  My familythree older sisters, my daddy, and my mother — were all disappointed about the medicine, except my mother.  She said, “I’ve always wanted you to be a musician, and you can make people happy by writing nice music.”  So I had my dear mother’s okay, and the others didn’t count by that time!  [Both laugh]  Well, those are the little things that come along in life!

BD:    But you apparently had been writing a little bit of music that had come to Lutkin’s attention.

DVV:    Oh yes, I was writing quite a bit.  I’m a flutist, and I played so many wonderful programs.  There’s so much in the flute literature.  Mostly the good things have been stolen by the fiddlers, of course, but there’s still a lot.  [Both laugh]  I was terribly interested in anything along the way of new music because I wanted to see what was going on, and I just had a magnificent time.  I played for Frederick Stock.  He was conductor of the Chicago Symphony, and DeLamarter was his associate.  Both of them helped me very, very much in getting started.  Stock never commissioned anything; his suggestion was a demand, as far as I was concerned, so I just started writing things and getting played, not only in Chicago, but other places.  I won the first prize of the New York Philharmonic with my First Symphony.  That was long, long ago
if I remember it was ’37and that sort of set me up.  It brought my name to the attention of the music public, and I was invited to conduct it in New York.  Stock was just delighted when I was invited there.

BD:    This was while you were a flutist with the symphony?

DVV:    Yes.  They let me off for a week or ten days, and paid my salary, too!  Things just worked out slick.  I was a very fortunate man; I still am fortunate!  I have had a most interesting life.  I’ve had a lot of energy and I still have pretty good health.  That’s terribly important!  Things happen, of course, to all of us from time to time, but I’ve avoided serious sicknesses nearly all my life.  It’s something that we all look forward to, the health that goes along with a lovely life.

BD:    Before you joined the Chicago Symphony, you went to Europe and studied with Franz Schmidt and Paul Dukas.  What did you learn from each of those composers?

DVV:    A tremendous amount, really!  Franz Schmidt was a further-out composer by that time, and from the experience with him I learned a great many techniques for modern music.  Paul Dukas, however, was one of the dearest men.  He was quite old then; it was 1931 I was there.  I was married already, and I still have the same darling wife!  Last November we celebrated our 56th wedding anniversary, and she’s still looking after me with our daughter here in a house in California.  My boy lives in Boston, and I’ve been invited up there for my 80th birthday, which is the eighth of May.  I hope to be able to go up there, because I have great friends in Boston through my friends in the symphony.  The father of one of the horn players, Osborne McConathy
, was the great publisher of public school music, the very first and best that we’ve ever had.  His son, Osborne, Junior, was our best man when we were married!  So I have quite a connection there.  As a matter of fact, Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the first flute player who is quite a famous woman, is preparing several things for my 80th birthday concert up there!  She’s a dear woman, and very intelligent.  She’s a lovely person.  Anyway, my luck’s still holding out pretty well!

BD:    Let’s hope it holds out for a long time to come.

DVV:    I’m in the middle of my eighth symphony, and my symphonies I’ve written, really, without commission.  That’s my own independent writing.  I’ve had a tremendous number of commissions, however, and sometimes it has been overwhelming because of time limits.  I’ve been around South America five times in my travels as composer mostly, also as conductor and flutist.  That experience has been very great for me.  I did most of my recordings in Frankfurt, Germany, with the Hessian Radio.

vanvactor BD:    I received the three records you sent, and a couple of them are with that orchestra.

DVV:    That’s from my publisher in New York, Roger Rhodes.  He’s my agent and publisher, and was a former student at Tennessee.

BD:    You spent thirty years teaching composition, theory and composition, at University of Tennessee.  Is composition really something that can be taught, or is it something that must come from within each young composer?

DVV:    I believe that it can only be steered.  It’s how one interprets the teaching, but no, it’s the suggestion.  One of my students, Richard Trythall, now lives in Rome
.  [See tribute he wrote about Van Vactor in the box at the bottom of this webpage.]  He’s been there eighteen years, I believe, with his wife.  I invited him down to my house at one time when he was studying with me, and we spent a big part of the day.  I orchestrated two pages, full score, of an overture that he was writing, simply to say, “Dick, I’m going to show you how I would do it.  You don’t need to do anything near it, but I want you to see what I would do, and then you do as you please.”  It was a suggestion to get him started.  I’ve always enjoyed very much my teaching.  I love my students.  I know that they have their shortcomings, and I try to send them here and there to correct those, or to strengthen the talents they do have.  Just to steer them, really.

BD:    You also spent some time earlier on teaching at Northwestern, so how have the young composers, the young students of composition, changed over forty or fifty years?

DVV:    Just after the Second World War, I was invited to be assistant conductor of the Philharmonic in Kansas City, and those were pretty rough years because there were many talented students.  They got to do what they wish, and were paid as veterans for their contribution to the war.  We had some untalented people studying, which is difficult for a teacher, of course.  [Both laugh]  But it’s amazing how many turned out pretty well, that came and were dying for this opportunity to get the schooling, and have it paid for.  I suppose that’s a government scholarship in composition; that’s how you would explain that.  It’s surprising how many did have talent and could do something.  I’m a dedicated teacher.  I had some classes there in Kansas City that were rather large.  One, as I remember, had twenty-nine students, which is a terrible thing to send to a teacher.  I always ask around the class what they play, or do they sing, or have they done anything with composition?  In this class I discovered that there were an awful lot of good singers, and I just took hold of that class of singers.  We sang eight or ten of the wonderful fugues of Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier, and it was the most delightful experience for me, too!  Naturally we know them from the keyboard, although I don’t play the piano.  I never use the piano for my composition; I sit at my desk and write down what comes out of my head.  But to have that experience with that wonderful group of singers... I wrote quite a few things for them when I discovered how great the singers were.  It’s the conditions of life that sometimes steer us into rather good things.

BD:    Is there any competition amongst composers?

DVV:    I never felt any competition, in the sense that I resented it, or anything of the sort.  I like people, and that is a fundamental thing, good or bad, you know.  But I do like people, and I’ve always been very fond of meeting people to find out what they can do.  If I can see some of their new things that haven’t been played, I like to look at them.  A recording is a quicker way at it, but I like to see what they’re doing.

BD:    Is the proliferation of recordings a good thing?

DVV:    I don’t know.  That would be a hard question for me to honestly answer.  [Continuing with the idea of competition or rapport with other composers]  Take El Salón México. Aaron [Copland] actually is a good friend of mine; I’ve known him for many years, and he said, “I simply stumbled into that.  It’s not as if it was there.  I just did the best I could.”  Sam Barber came to Chicago when Stock played his First Symphony, and I got quite well acquainted with him.  He was a charming gentleman, and naturally I was very interested in hearing this new work.  The good thing was that he was just as interested in looking at my First Symphony the next year when it was done by the New York Philharmonic.  He came to the rehearsals and we spent quite a lot of time together discussing all kinds of things.  Those two people I got to know very well.  There were many, many others.  [Roger] Sessions I’ve known for a long time, and as a matter of fact I saw him in South America quite a while ago, in ’65.  We spent a great deal of time together and I introduced him around to all of my friends.  I was quite well acquainted in Santiago, Chile, and introduced him to everybody, took him places, and played his music for them.  So I’ve had that kind of lovely experience of my colleagues.

BD:    It seems like there’s a great camaraderie.

DVV:    Yes.  I would much rather be kind with my wonderful friends in composition than dislike them.  There are exceptions, naturally.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We spoke briefly about recordings.  Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

DVV:    Generally yes, I would say.  The ones I made in Germany especially I think are really quite good.  The Germans say “Dienst ist Dienst, und Schnaps ist Schnaps.”  In other words, duty is duty, and whiskey is another thing.  [Both laugh]  So they go to work.  They never scowl at you.  They don’t necessarily smile at you all the time, either, but they do their work.  That’s much more than the Italian orchestras.  I have very limited experience with Italian orchestras, but my pupil who I had mentioned, Richard Trythall, did quite a bit of conducting, and he told me they’re not very sympathetic.  Generally, the Latinos are much more sympathetic than any others.  I found that in Rio, with the Brazilians.  I had occasion to have solo concerts there with the symphony orchestra.  The best one there is connected with the opera.  They also give concerts, of course, but they are generally schooled in opera playing.  The Brazilians were so nice to me.  The conductor was Italian, and he gave me a whole extra rehearsal because I was doing a couple pieces of my own, which they asked for, along with the Mephisto Waltz of Liszt.  He later said to me, “You speak wonderful Brazilian!  Where did you learn?”  I said, “I’m speaking Spanish with so many mistakes you think it’s Brazilian!”  [Laughs]  I’ve had so many lovely, lovely experiences in my life like that.

BD:    You of course were a fine conductor, but when other people conducted your works, did they find things in your music that you didn’t know where there?

stock DVV:    Many times.  Many times.  They would dig something up from a different angle of thinking that was generally very welcome to me.  They’d reach out, but it would be like a playwright and a good actor.  A good actor finds things in the play to bring out that maybe the playwright hadn’t quite intended.  There are so many instances of that.  [Musing about a play]  The English composer Walton wrote music for the film of Henry the Fifth, and my, that music is so great!  I had the opportunity to get to know him quite well by correspondence, because Stock played very much of his music.  Frederick Stock [photo at left] was a great innovator of new music, and he’s a very fine composer himself.  He did a beautiful violin concerto, and a good many other things.  Stock was very interested in new scores.  I made a survey of it one time, at Stock
’s suggestion.  Toscanini played Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the only American music he played that year.  He and Koussevitzky, to just take those two eastern conductors, did seven that particular year.  Stock did fifty-eight new pieces, American and European!  And he worked them in the programs so skillfully that nobody seemed to resent it.  That audience welcomed all this new music.  Depending upon its length and harshness to the ear at the time, he chose the length of the composition to work it into that program so it was just as slick as anything, and they liked it!

BD:    Why has that changed?  Why do audiences now seem to be so very much against a new piece?

DVV:    Well in the first place, at a concert the people have paid for a ticket and they have to be there!  They can walk out, but they seldom do.  It’s not polite.  There are exceptions to that, but it’s a captive audience.  In art exhibit, people can keep walking.  If they don’t like a piece, a painting or drawing, they pass on to one that catches their eye!

BD:    But music exists in time.

DVV:    That’s right.  You have to spend the time there in order to hear it.  Among the creative arts, that’s unique in music.  Well, of course, nothing is very unique anymore, but it’s different, certainly, in music.

BD:    As a composer, what do you expect out of an audience that comes to hear your music?

DVV:    I expect some respect for having done it.  I do believe that I can always give them a theme, a tune that they’ll remember.  That’s such a great subject!  Do you know the Hindemith book?  It’s a summation of a series of lectures he gave at Harvard.

BD:    I have the book, but it’s been a long time since I’ve read it.

DVV:    I’ve read it two or three times, and he explains and solves a great many of those things that we’re talking about
the audience and the composer.  The constant background music that we hear all the time is ruining the public’s ear, if it hasn’t already!  The kids say they can’t study without music going on.  Unfortunately, it’s usually awful music, but some of the rock music is pretty far out — pretty damn good, too.

BD:    [Somewhat surprised]  So there is some good rock music???

DVV:    Yes, I think so!  After all, those guys have a lot of talent there.  It’s the direction it goes.  I do like some of it, quite, but I don’t spend a lot of time listening to it.  I don’t buy their records, but you hear it; you can’t avoid it.  It’s going all the time, someplace.  There’s a recent upsurge in the use of Mozart’s music, probably because of the film.  I didn’t go to it; I wouldn’t go to it, but you can’t avoid hearing it.  On TV one hears it.  I sort of resented what they did with his music!  I really did.  I know that millions of people
I suppose millionsfound out about Mozart, which is a good thing, of course, but they did curtail things.  I’ve done fifteen or twenty of his symphonies, and I did them by memory.  At least that’s the way I always conducted; I have a photographic memory.  I found that out playing bridge.  [Laughs]  I got so I couldn’t think of anything else.  Those hands would pop up the next morning after playing a game of bridge!  I finally quit it; I quit bridge.  I haven’t played it for years.  My father-in-law begged me to come over to his house when he was having two tables of bridge.  He asked me to come over and help out.  I had never played bridge with him, but once it got started, the whole process came back!  And we just beat the hell out of the opponents!  [Both laugh]  He was so proud of me.  He was proud of me for my writings, for my music, but he was really proud of me when we licked the other guys at bridge.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you consider yourself primarily a composer, or a conductor, or a teacher?

vanvactor DVV:    I’m a musician; that’s it.  A musician has to place himself where he’s needed at the moment, or at the time, as performer and interpreter, and all that.  So it’s really just being a musician and doing the best you can for the circumstances as you find it, as it comes your way.  I believe that.  I’m just a musician.  In other words, I use what talents I have, what I’ve accomplished by learning about music, to the best advantage as the time comes.  As it comes up, you try to knock it off just right!

BD:    So you have to be pragmatic?

DVV:    Yes.  Yes, indeed.

BD:    Did you ever write an opera?

DVV:    No, so I can always speak freely about how they should be written!

BD:    [Eager to hear his views on this subject]  Okay, how should an opera be written?

DVV:    In the first place, opera is theater, primarily.  In the general sense, a long span, an opera is good theater.  Good theater has to have good actors in it; that’s where the singers come in.  And good actors, or good singers, have to have good tunes!  There’s wonderful opera in Chicago from time to time.  You can remember so often one tune from an opera that soaked in and hit the spot.  For example, in Bohème, when the old philosopher is selling his coat for medicine, that tune is so absolutely fitting.  Puccini was an unusual composer.

BD:    If you are such a tunesmith, why did you never write an opera?

DVV:    There was always something else standing in the way, damn it!  Over the years I’ve had so many commissioned things that I had to press to get them done on time.  Sometimes they never got performed at the occasion for which they were commissioned!  They would eventually get performed someplace else, sometimes with quite good success, but there’s always something standing in the way.  I’ve had so many wonderful words and themes presented to me by friends and writers — good ones, too.

BD:    You have written some choral music?

DVV:    Quite a bit, yes.

BD:    Do you have a special affinity for the human voice?

DVV:    I believe so.  It’s an actual instrument; it’s our mode of expression, and the way to project ideas is by that wonderful gift of ours.  I have quite a low bass voice; I can damn near sing with the bassoons.  [Both laugh]  And when that runs out, I’m a great whistler!  I can whistle everything where the voice leaves off, almost... Not any more, but I used to.  And the whistle is piccolo range.  People think of it as the flute, but it’s really the piccolo.  I’ve enjoyed so much my being a flutist.  I didn’t take my instrument to Honolulu just now, but I got it out this morning and set it up, seeing to how it works, and will start practicing tomorrow morning.  I blow every day.  I’m still one of those old-fashioned guys.  I smoke a cigarette every once in a while, but I can blow the roof off!  I still have wonderful lungs.  I know I shouldn’t smoke, but I’m getting so old that I have to have some kind of a vice!  [Both laugh]

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t feel that being a musician is a vice?

DVV:    No!  No, I don’t.  [Laughs]

BD:    Where is music going today?

DVV:    I don’t know.  I think that there will always be something pretty good coming out.  It may be a direction that we don’t know anything about.  Over my lifetime, we’ve seen quite a few things come and go.  Like the yo-yo...

BD:    ...and the Hula Hoop!

DVV:    Yes!  [Laughs]  I’ll take the Hula Hoop.  Sometimes a good-looking girl gets hold of that hoop!  Oh, my...  It’s such a magnificent life being a musician, that I thank more than once in a while that old Peter Christian Lutkin.

BD:    I’m glad he steered you in the right way.

DVV:    Oh, I am, too.  I’m very grateful.  He was a lovely man.  Very little happened around the Chicago area that he didn’t seem to know about.

BD:    It’s been wonderful talking with you.  I’m glad I was able to track you down and get a hold of you.

DVV:    Well you’re so nice to call me, and I am so happy to have this opportunity to speak to a man where we have a common background in many, many ways.

As was my usual practice, I sent my guest a copy of the WNIB Program Guide when I presented his program.
He requested a copy of the air-check tape, which I also sent, and later I got this lovely note . . .

van vactor

van vactor

David Van Vactor was born in 1906 in Plymouth, Indiana, and grew up in nearby Argos, a town of a thousand people. His mother was a midwife and his father was a Protestant minister, house builder and owner of a small factory that made porch columns. His father was also and inventor, whose five claims on an aircraft designed to take off and land vertically as well as horizontally were patented in 1940.

Taught to play the flute by the town barber at an early age, Van Vactor played the piccolo in the town band from the time he was eight years old until he graduated from high school at seventeen, after which his family moved to Evanston, Illinois, so that he could go to Northwestern University where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees. Although he was a premedical student, he studied theory and composition and by his senior year in college had written some remarkable songs and the Chaconne for String Orchestra which was performed in 1928 by the Rochester Symphony, Howard Hanson conducting.

Having no money to pay for medical school, he was convinced by the Dean of the School of music that he could make his way in the world as a professional musician so long as he sought the best training available, which meant a year or more of study in Europe. After graduation, he set out for Vienna and paid for his passage by playing flute recitals during the crossing. The great event of his first ocean voyage was meeting his future wife, then a girl of sixteen, also from Evanston. He spent the next nine months in Vienna studying flute with Josef Niedemayer, Harmony with Arnold Schoenberg and composition with Franz Schmidt. In 1931 he took his bride to France for five months so he could study flute with Marcel Moyse and composition with Paul Dukas, and in the fall of that year he took second chair in the flute section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in while he played for thirteen seasons under Frederick Stock, whose protege he became as a conductor.

It was during this period - while playing in the orchestra, teaching theory and conducting the chamber orchestra at Northwestern, in addition to teaching thirty-five flute lessons a week - that Van Vactor wrote some of his major works. His Quintet for Flute and String Quartet (1932) won an award from the Society for the Publication of American Music and was published by George Schirmer. Frederick Stock gave the first performance of Van Vactor's Concerto a Quattro for Three Flutes, Harp, and Orchestra in 1935, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played it many times in the ten years that followed. Van Vactor achieved a national reputation when he conducted the New York Philharmonic Symphony in January of 1939 in the first performance of his symphony in d, No. 1 which had won first prize in a competition sponsored by the orchestra. The new symphony was well received and subsequently was played in Chicago and Cleveland. As a result, his music would be played by every major orchestra in America, and many commissions followed: the Concerto for Viola written for Milton Preeves, premiered at Ravinia Park by the Chicago Symphony in 1940; five Bagatelles for Strings written for the Saidenberg Symphonietta of New York; Credo (1941) and Music for the Marines (1943) two large works both commissioned by Fabian Sevitzky for the Indianapolis Symphony. Van Vactor's Overture to a Comedy No. 2 won the Juilliard Publication Award in 1942 and was played in Indianapolis, Montreal, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, St. Louis and San Francisco. His String Quartet No. 1, written for the Jacques Gordon Quartet in 1940, was taken on tour by the Budapest String Quartet in 1946.

In 1941-46, he toured South America three times, first with the American Woodwind Quintet, and in 1945 and 1946 he returned to conduct his own works with the Municipal Orchestra of Rio de Janeiro and the Orquesta Sinfonica de Chile. In 1944 and 1945 he ran a farm in Marshall, Missouri for the war effort. When he was Assistant Conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic, 1945 to 1947, he founded the Allied Arts Orchestra, devoted to performing contemporary music. Recitativo and Saltarello, Cantata for Treble Voices, Introduction and Presto for Strings, and Pastorale and Dance for Flute and Strings were written during these years when he was living in Missouri and traveling to South America. Roy Harris had commissioned Pastorale and Dance and premiered it with the Colorado College Orchestra in the summer of 1947, with David Van Vactor as flute soloist.

In the fall of that year, Van Vactor founded the Fine Arts Department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and became conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, a post he held for twenty-five years. His major works written after he moved to Tennessee were String Quartet No. 2 (1949), Concerto for Violin (1951) and The New Light (1954). In 1953, he conducted the London Philharmonia.

In 1957, a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to spend part of the year in Frankfurt, Germany conducting several orchestras and working on his third symphony. The Trojan Women Suite was also started during this sojourn in Frankfurt. Upon his return to Knoxville in September of that year, he received a commission from the Louisville Orchestra and quickly wrote Fantasia, Chaconne and Allegro which was performed in Louisville in November of 1957 and recorded by Columbia, Robert Whitney conducting. Returning to Germany every summer for the next ten years, he reacquainted himself with the many pieces he had written in the `30's and `40's by recording them with the Hessichen Rundfunk Orchestrer. With the orchestra in Frankfurt and the Knoxville Symphony, he also recorded works by a number of American composers, some of whom he had commissioned through a Ford Foundation grant. Many of these recordings would be released on the CRI label. The Louisville piece and the new symphony which he finished in the spring of 1958 mark the end of the first half of his creative output, from a stylistic standpoint.

In 1957, he had begun to use the tone row as a compositional device. Works that benefited most from this practice were longer ones, with several movements, since all the movements of a work would draw on the same thematic material; hence greater unity was achieved. While Van Vactor is resolutely tonal in his approach to serial technique, the character of his music written after 1957 is decidedly different from the Symphony No. 3 starting with Trojan Women Suite (1959) and Suite for Woodwind Quintet (1959), the tunes are quirkier, the harmonies richer, and more freedom is evident in their development. The Suite for Piano (1962), Sinfonia Breve (1964) and Four Etudes for Winds and Percussion (1968) are the culmination of the experimental phase of his work. In 1965, he returned to Chile for six months to conduct twelve concerts and play two flute recitals and to meet with the young composers whom he had had the privilege to reach twenty years before.

After 1970 followed the fruit of his retirement: two large pieces for symphonic band, Episodes - Jesus Christ for double chorus and orchestra, thirty-six pieces for woodwinds, a saxophone concerto and four symphonies. In 1975, he was named Composer Laureate of the State of Tennessee by the state legislature, a life-time honor. He retired from the University of Tennessee in 1976. His magnificent house set high on the bank of the Tennessee River, overlooking the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains was his sanctuary. Three months in the winter at his daughter's home in Los Angeles, two weeks in Honoloulu, annual trips to Boston and Maine to visit his son's family, and to Rome and Lake Como, were the rewards of old age and kept him productive. In his manuscripts, there are continual references to the places he loved. His Symphony No. 7 was finished in 1982. His eighth symphony remains unfinished.

Always by his sides was his wife, who took care of all practical matters so that he could write music. In 1989, they moved to Los Angeles to be near their daughter. Van Vactor died at home in Century City March 24, 1994, forty-five days before his eighty-eighth birthday.

© 1995 David Landreth Van Vactor

van vactor

The following letter, addressed to the Editor of the Knoxville News-Sentinel and dated December 24, 1972, appeared in the "News-Sentinel Forum" in January of 1973. It is a brief but deeply felt appreciation of David Van Vactor, the conductor, composer, flutist and educator who, from the late 1940's to the mid- 70's, made such a vital contribution to the musical life of Knoxville, Tennessee, and to the life of countless young people, myself included, who looked to him for inspiration.

EDITOR, The News-Sentinel:
     I read of conductor David Van Vactor's resignation from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra with deep sadness. Your words of editorial were quite appropriate in evaluating the tremendous contribution he has made to Knoxville's cultural life. A special note should also be made of his evangelical concern and care for the musical education of the children of Knoxvi1le.
     I still remember vividly the excitement at Fountain City Grammar School in the late 1940's when we were preparing to go to a Young People's Concert given by the K.S.O. A lot had to do with the half day out of school, of course, and with the trip down town with good friends, but a lot also had to do with seeing a full symphony orchestra, hearing beautiful music, and learning about it first hand from that debonair, mysterious man on the podium - David Van Vactor.
The impression these concerts left on all of us was enormous. The afternoon seemed to unfold in another world. In fact it took place within the old U.T. gymnasium complete with basketball goals and occasional appearances by tennis-shoed undergraduates intent upon crossing the auditorium come hell or Beethoven. Yet it seemed like Carnegie Hall and, in retrospect, it may have been even better than Carnegie Hall.
     David Van Vactor was not content, however, just that we hear music. We were supposed to compose it as well - so he organized the "Tune Contests". And then we were supposed to play it as well - so he organized the "Young Performer's Contests". He never seemed content and kept us all (and here there could be a long list of young Knoxville musicians) working to come up to his standards. He represented an ideal of complete self-dedication and of musical and personal integrity.
     In the mid-fifties while in high school and an active member of the K.S.O., I saw he had his work cut out not only in educating the young people, but also in making Knoxville conscious of the importance of the orchestra and of its place in the community. He insisted that an active cultural life must begin at home - the concert being only the final link in a chain of day-to-day interactions between community and musician. Today one can see how brilliantly he has succeeded on all accounts.
     Dave's resignation from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra marks the end of an era, but for those of us, "the young people", who received our stimulus from him and the activities of the K.S.O., the era is unending - permanently impressed upon every fiber of our thought. We are the most fortunate of all, for we had the benefit of his extraordinary talents and guidance during our formative years and we have the example of his imagination and determination for the rest of our lives.

Richard Trythall                                               

December 24, 1972  

van vactor

van vactor

van vactor

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on March 15, 1986.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB two months later, and again in 1996.  A full rogram (without interview) was presented on WNIB in 1991.  One piece of music was included as part of the in-flight package aboard Delta Airlines in March-April of 1988.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2012.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.