How the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Began

In founding one of the South’s oldest symphonies 75 years ago, Bertha Walburn Clark also became one of the world’s first female conductors

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Described as her favorite, this photograph was taken by violinist Bertha Walburn Clark’s first husband, graphic artist Rand Walburn, who died in 1919. Courtesy University of Tennessee Special Collections.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Described as her favorite, this photograph was taken by violinist Bertha Walburn Clark’s first husband, graphic artist Rand Walburn, who died in 1919. Courtesy University of Tennessee Special Collections.

“Woman Conductor”: Bertha Walburn Clark at the helm of the fully fledged Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, ca. 1935. Photo courtesy KSO

“Woman Conductor”: Bertha Walburn Clark at the helm of the fully fledged Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, ca. 1935. Photo courtesy KSO

Many of the 300 people who paid 35 cents each to enter the sanctuary of Church Street Methodist Church that Sunday afternoon in 1935 had never seen the cathedral-like interior. Opened only four years earlier, the church was still deep in debt, late on its payments for the construction of the massive stone edifice. It was planned just before the Crash, before anybody knew about any Depression.

Assembled in the chancel were 27 musicians. Some were recognizable professionals, teachers in schools or in walk-up studios downtown. But one musician in the orchestra that day was a candy salesman, one a regional oil-company executive, one a stenographer at the university, one the wife of a guy who owned the Hupmobile dealership. None of them got paid for this performance. In fact, they paid dues to be members of this group.

Americans knew what a Conductor looked like: a Conductor was a tall, lean man in tails, with a glowering expression, white hair brushed back, like Toscanini or Stokowski. The conductor of this newest orchestra in the world was not much like that. She was a compact woman with graying hair and the round, cherubic face of a kindly school teacher.

The performance, which highlighted young local pianist Evelyn Miller, included a kaleidoscopic array of classical music, mostly short bits, ranging from Mozart’s concerto No. 20, to modern pieces by living composers. It included Sibelius’ melancholy Valse Triste and the peppy “Trepak” dance from The Nutcracker, recognizable in 1935 even before it was played in retail stores during the holiday shopping season.

The relentless applause of the crowd brought the conductor back to the stage several times.

November 1935 would seem an unlikely time to assemble a symphony anywhere. Most Americans had phonographs or radios, and were getting used to staying home to listen to music. Knoxvillians just weren’t coming out for live events like they used to.

Worse, it was the bottom of the Depression. Unemployment had passed 20 percent; bank and business closings were almost too commonplace for the newspapers. Knoxville, specifically, seemed to have slid into a cultural ditch. Clearer-eyed observers admitted the soot-caked city had peaked 20 years earlier. The Lyceum had been torn down, the old Auditorium was a streetcar barn, and the old Opera House hosted wrestling matches. The following summer, Belgian author Odette Keun would call Knoxville “one of the ugliest, dirtiest, stuffiest, most unsanitary towns in the United States... [an eyesore] of tin frameworks, advertisements and dump heaps.”

Even if the city were in better shape, classical music might have seemed incongruous with that time and place. When 1930s Knoxville gets mentioned in a music history, it’s almost always for country music. In 1935, country competed with big-band jazz to preoccupy the multitudes, and seemed to be gaining the upper hand. Local fiddler Roy Acuff was leading a band called the Crazy Tennesseans, who camped it up for their live audiences in ragged straw hats and overalls, and earned a lot of airplay on Knoxville radio stations. Singer-comic Archie Campbell was 21 years old, and just getting started with his Grandpappy gags. Pee Wee King was on his way to town, to make a success of his cowboy-hat Western swing, and WNOX was just weeks away from starting up its daily Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round that would launch country-music careers for decades to come.

How symphonic music might fit into that puzzle was a secret known mainly to a 52-year-old grandmother named Bertha Walburn Clark. For her, the creation of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was the culmination of a dream she’d been nurturing for a quarter century.

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Courtesy University of Tennessee Special Collections.

Courtesy University of Tennessee Special Collections.

Born to German parents in southern Ohio, Bertha Roth had shown an early talent in violin and voice, and at 19 graduated from the regionally renowned Cincinnati College of Music in May 1902. She made the newspapers under the headline “INDIGNANT.” On graduation day, she refused to accept her diploma. She learned she had not graduated “with distinction,” and blamed the sexist Old World prejudices of her Belgian professor, Jose Marien, who didn’t respect “the ideals of American girls.”

Soon afterward she moved with her family to Knoxville, and knew her way around. The Roths, who’d long been involved in the coal business, considered this prosperous, growing city their American home, and had family here. Bertha was barely 20, but she and her pianist sister Olive (“Ollie,” to her family) both set themselves up as music teachers. First associated with the Cable Piano Co. at 407 South Gay, she became a charismatic figure downtown, in demand for recitals and benefits, occasions of all sorts. A March 1903 YMCA publication featured her portrait on the cover, with the caption, “Miss Bertha Roth... who with her violin has captured our city.”

Knoxville needed a new musical idol. For decades, the city’s unquestioned maestro was a German 65 years her senior. Born in 1817, Gustav Knabe had been a member of Felix Mendelssohn’s orchestra at Leipzig, and during 40 years in Knoxville he organized and conducted a variety of ensembles, including a large vocal/instrumental assembly known as the Philharmonic in 1867. Heralded as “the Father of Music in East Tennessee,” Knabe was 88 when he died in 1906, but he left behind hundreds of Knoxvillians who were accustomed to competent live performances of classical music.

By then Bertha Roth described herself as a professional violinist, known for her recitals at Cable Hall. She married Rand Walburn, a painter, photographer, and commercial artist she’d known in Ohio. He found work as an “artist,” working for several years as a colorist for the Knaffl studio, the popular photographic shop. The Walburns lived in a house on North Third, near Mr. Roth, and had two daughters, Elsa and Lenore.

Bertha played a 17th-century Maggini violin. She performed at the 1910 opening of the impressive new 200-room Hotel Atkin, across Depot Street from the Southern train station. Owner C.B. Atkin—recently involved in the construction of the Bijou Theatre, he would much later build the Tennessee Theatre—was so impressed with her talent that he invited the 27-year-old to play there as a regular dining-room attraction. The Atkin became an elegant destination for dinners and teas; the biggest, newest hotel in town was also the place where top-billed performers stayed when they were in town for a show at Staub’s or the Bijou. One Atkin guest was Victor Herbert himself; his sentimental light operas made him America’s most popular composer. Another was Albert Spalding, the young violinist. They offered their compliments. But the story Bertha recalled most specifically for the rest of her long life concerned Walter Damrosch, the German-born conductor, whose New York Symphony Orchestra was playing at Staub’s. Damrosch was dining at the Atkin when Bertha Roth and her sister were playing a violin-piano duet. They lingered over coffee, and they received a note. “Usually when we are away from New York, we hurry through our meals as fast as possible to escape the hotel music,” Damrosch wrote. “But we have stayed on here for half an hour to listen.... I have never heard a woman get such tones from a violin!”

“Oh, were we proud!” she would recall to a newspaper reporter, at age 84.

In 1912, Ollie Roth died, unexpectedly, after a brief illness. Bertha’s ensemble proved flexible, contracting or expanding as friends and talented students appeared to play, sometimes a duo, sometimes a quintet. One early member was young businessman Harry Shugart, on cello, whose wife, Bess, played piano. Another regular was Harold Clark, an elegant kid with an urbane mustache whose father was a well-known piano dealer, on flute. He was much younger than Bertha, maybe hardly more than a teenager when he started playing with her group at the Atkin.

It had not been unusual for women to start musical clubs, or form chamber ensembles. But as Bertha added more and more instruments to her ensembles, and mounted more elaborate and challenging programs, she crossed a line, perhaps without realizing it, that few women in the world had ever crossed. Perhaps as early as 1917—a long-remembered but little-documented concert with an especially large ensemble and chorus—she was, at least occasionally, something like the conductor of something like a symphony orchestra.

Rudy Ennis is the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s unofficial historian, and writer of historical program notes, a surprising role for a Texan. Originally from Indiana, the attorney lived in Knoxville for almost 20 years, and was a KSO board member, before work drew him to Fort Worth in 1986. But he visits often, and remains fascinated with one aspect of the symphony’s history.

“It was extremely rare in the U.S. at that time,” Ennis says of Bertha’s status as a female orchestra conductor. “It’s still relatively rare today. I found an interesting fact that might help explain it. She studied at the conservatory in Cincinnati, at a time when the Cincinnati Symphony was getting its start. And the Cincinnati Symphony began with a group of women,” who formed the Cincinnati Orchestra Association. “That could have given her some women-can-do-this mentality.”

Only occasionally would a Knoxville reporter remark on her gender as being anything out of the ordinary. Female conductors were a scandal in big cities, one reporter wrote in the ’30s, but what we were used to in Knoxville. Many who witnessed Bertha’s various symphonic groups had never seen a male conductor.

About the same time as that vague musical event, Bertha and Rand Walburn separated, leaving Bertha and her two daughters, Elsa and Lenore, in their home on North Third Avenue. In 1919, Rand Walburn contracted the Spanish flu and died.

As her musical opportunities multiplied, Bertha was a single mother raising two daughters by herself. Her longtime fellow musician Harold Clark was a good decade younger than she was, but in 1921, they married, and lived in her home on North Third. They’d be intimate musical partners for more than half a century.

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The Walburn Clark Little Symphony. This versatile 25-piece ensemble, almost the size of the original KSO, was Knoxville’s orchestra in the 1920s, most familiar at the assembly room of the Farragut Hotel on Gay Street. photos courtesy KSO Bertha Walburn Clark is standing with the baton. Husband Harold Clark, on cello to the far right, awaits direction.

The Walburn Clark Little Symphony. This versatile 25-piece ensemble, almost the size of the original KSO, was Knoxville’s orchestra in the 1920s, most familiar at the assembly room of the Farragut Hotel on Gay Street. photos courtesy KSO Bertha Walburn Clark is standing with the baton. Husband Harold Clark, on cello to the far right, awaits direction.

A retired concert flutist and recording artist, musical professor emeritus at the University of Michigan, Keith Bryan lives in Washington, D.C., with his own wife and longtime musical companion, Karen Keys; they long performed as a flute-and-piano duo. “We have a beautiful piano that’s closed up, and my flute’s on top of it,” he says. They’re taking it easy now. “It’s pretty hard work,” says Bryan, who turns 79 next month.

Keith Walburn Bryan is Bertha Walburn Clark’s grandson.

“They were just magnificent people, really a pair,” he says. Though he lived in Washington as a boy, he spent his summers with his grandmother and Harold Clark. Bryan casually calls Clark his grandfather, and says Clark inspired him to learn the flute; it became his career. He and his wife are a piano-flute duo like Walburn and Clark had been.

“Music was all they lived on,” he says.

Bryan says his grandmother was part of a sort of bohemian arts community that included impressionist artist Catherine Wiley and various members of the talented Krutch family of writers, musicians, and artists. “They were part of a big colony—the arts in Knoxville was a very fertile societal field of painters and musicians,” he says. “The artists, they all knew each other, and that affected their aesthetic relationships.”

As a music lover, she had no favorites. “A good music station was always turned on,” he says. “She was very eclectic in her tastes,” curious about all styles.

It shows in the programs that survive in her scrapbooks in the University of Tennessee archives. In early 1924, Walburn Clark launched an orchestra-sized Philharmonic Society, which performed at least once, at the Fifth Avenue Christian Church. Her daughter Elsa played piano. Among the selections were contemporary pieces by Borowski, Aylward, and Moszkowski, composers living at the time, but hardly household names. “The orchestra was a distinct and pleasant surprise,” wrote a local reviewer, “music of the best order, but not ponderous.”

She was establishing a pattern that KSO scribe Rudy Ennis has observed through the programs of the early years of the KSO: short, fresh, early 20th-century pieces, not daring, perhaps, but interesting and challenging to mainstream audiences. The approach probably served her well in the Atkin, agreeable to people who were musically curious but not yet accustomed to sitting through full-length operas and symphonies.

Perhaps sensing she’d overreached, she returned with a slightly reduced orchestra. An 18-piece group called the Walburn Clark Little Symphony debuted in early 1925, a very unusual show that included some Schubert, some spirituals, a work by the contemporary Russian composer Glazunov, and a recitation of Kipling’s “Gunga Din.”

“It is hoped that a Knoxville symphony orchestra may be developed,” wrote a reporter, using lower-case letters.

The Little Symphony seemed most at home at the Farragut Hotel’s ballroom, which could squeeze in about 150 chairs. Bertha seemed happier playing to a full, if small, house. Her shows were always wildly eclectic: A December 1925 concert features some Debussy, some Schubert, some Castilian folk songs, a Japanese piece called “Butterflies,” an aria from Puccini’s La Boheme, some black spirituals.

That year she attempted to launch a proper “season” of three concerts, with subscriptions. In April 1926, a performance of Sibelius’ Valse Triste—and, a departure from the Atkin days, a longer piece, Mozart’s 39th Symphony.

In February 1927, the press trumpeted a bigger performance as “Knoxville’s First Real Symphony Orchestra,” performing under the direction of Bertha Walburn Clark at the Knoxville High School Auditorium. They sold 300 seats right away. Daughter Lenore played cello and Harold Clark played flute, in another unusual collection of shorter pieces, 11 in all, ranging from Saint-Saens to Handel to Puccini to Efrem Zimbalist (Sr.), the young Russian-born composer.

It wasn’t a sell-out, but many who attended were impressed by the size and enthusiasm of the paying crowd. Bertha was less so. Considering the months of preparation, she bristled, “I don’t think Knoxvillians came out to hear us as well as might have been expected.” It may have discouraged her; she didn’t organize another orchestra-sized performance for three years.

Later newspaper articles would cite 1927 as the birthdate of the Knoxville Symphony. Walburn Clark was well known for conducting big orchestral events—but she didn’t call what she had a Symphony Orchestra, because it wasn’t a regular thing, with seasons and subscriptions and reliable audiences.

The next try came in May 1930 when the Young Business Men’s Club convinced her there was hope for a civic orchestra, and proposed a free promotional fund-raising concert at the Lyric Theatre—the 60-year-old Staub’s Opera House. In spite of the heat, an audience filled the 1,200 seats of the cavernous un-air-conditioned room. Everybody stayed, and applauded. Few donated. When expenses were paid, the aspirant KSO made a profit of $30.

A less-heralded concert by the “Knoxville Symphony Orchestra” showcased Schubert’s Eighth Symphony at the new Andrew Johnson Hotel’s ballroom in 1931. You wonder if Bertha was entirely happy when the Knoxville News Sentinel featured her photograph—not as a conductor, but as one of Knoxville’s plausibly “Beautiful Women.” In her 50s now, she might have considered giving it up.

***

It may have been a matter of critical mass. From her piano-violin duo beginnings in 1910, Clark’s projects had seemed bigger and bigger. A symphony orchestra may have been inevitable by then, Depression or no.

But what tipped the scales may have been President Roosevelt’s New Deal project, TVA, headquartered in Knoxville in 1933. TVA folks got together and organized the symphony’s first board of directors. The fact they were newcomers reportedly rankled some longtime patrons, but Walburn Clark was happy to take what she could get. By one account, a Beatrice Greenman, wife of a TVA employee, was the one who made a critical investment—a generous $750—cited as important to launching the first regular season.

The influx of educated professionals provided both a paying audience and a new source of talent. That very first performance of the KSO included at least two TVA employees in the lineup; two years later, the KSO included at least six TVA folks, most of them described as research or design engineers. When the KSO Foundation started in the early 1940s, two of the first three presidents were TVA staffers.

Retired merchant Martin Hunt recalls some other factors. Now 91, he still attends most KSO concerts and may hold the record for continuity. Barely 16 at the time of the KSO’s first concert, he doesn’t recall whether he was present, but says a family friend often took him to shows. “‘Uncle Leo’ Fanz always had one or two extra tickets, and started taking me when I was very young,” Hunt says. “He was the treasurer for a long time, and it was his money that kept the orchestra going when Bertha Walburn Clark was the head of it.” He remembers some small symphony parties, dominated by Knoxvillians of Swiss descent; some were at Hopecote, the unusual home of Mrs. Albert Hope, née Emma Fanz, near the university. He thinks the Swiss had more to do with supporting music than most other affluent Knoxville families.

“It was a clannish sort of thing,” he recalls, with the Swiss still proud of their European heritage, as often expressed in classical music. He says a lot of the early supporters of KSO were nostalgic for the days of Staub’s Theatre. Some supporters were descendents of immigrant Peter Staub himself.

Several American symphonies gained talent in the ’30s with the infusion of refugees from Nazi-dominated Europe. The original roster of the KSO includes several plausibly German-Jewish names, the most provocative of which is that of Paul Mendelssohn. A violinist in the very first KSO, he lived in Knoxville for about three years, conducting a violin studio on the 100 block of Gay Street. Ennis has asked around, and never encountered anyone who knew anything of his origins, or any possible relationship to the composer.

In the original orchestra in 1935, performing at Church Street Methodist, were at least two musicians who had played with Walburn Clark in the old Edwardian-era quartets: Ora DeArmond, on cello, and Edith Camp, on violin. The inaugural performance of the KSO got much less press attention than her big orchestral events of the ’20s did. The News Sentinel devoted less space to it than they’d given her the year before, for being a “Beautiful Woman.” Still, this time it stuck.

Her volunteer orchestra grew rapidly. The opulent Tennessee Theatre was mainly a movie house, but occasionally made way for live shows. The KSO, now boasting 40 musicians, played in its future home the first time ever in December 1936. The paying audience for that benefit for the St. John’s Orphanage numbered 500; it was about one-fourth of what was then the capacity of the theater.

The KSO settled in at the smaller, older Bijou, the symphony’s first semi-regular home. After about 20 years of hosting performing arts high and low, the theater had suffered hard times, and was by then a second-run movie theater. The growing symphony—by the 1937-38 season, it boasted 45 pieces—lent it some legitimacy.

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“Miss Bertha Roth...who with her violin has captured our city.” Long before she begun her career as conductor, and eventually founder of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the violinist was a regular performer in downtown churches and hotel ballrooms. Photo courtesy KSO

“Miss Bertha Roth...who with her violin has captured our city.” Long before she begun her career as conductor, and eventually founder of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the violinist was a regular performer in downtown churches and hotel ballrooms. Photo courtesy KSO

Meanwhile, out on the airwaves, country radio ruled. A few symphony performers were able to ride both waves, none more gracefully than Harry Nides (pronounced Ni-duss). A background in formal training in Cincinnati may have endeared him to Clark. He was in Knoxville as early as 1927—by one account, he came to town just to join WNOX’s studio orchestra. Though he made a living playing commercial jingles on live radio, he had a reputation as the best violinist in town, possibly excepting Bertha Clark herself. He joined the KSO in 1937, and became its first long-term concertmaster.

Known to play for big-band dance orchestras, in the days when jazz made room for a violin, he was happy to play fiddle with a country band now and then, and even co-wrote some country tunes. Nides was also one of the more familiar figures on WNOX’s crowd-pleasing Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. The regionally broadcast live-audience program is historically famous for launching country legends, but the variety show regularly made room for Nides to play a classical solo to the working-class crowds that packed the auditorium daily. Katherine Crews, then a teenager in Morristown, was a radio fan. “He was the only thing on there that I thought was any good,” she recalls. “I begged my mother to go when he was playing.” Her mother was embarrassed to be seen in the Gay Street studio, but finally took her anyway. (She remembers her anxious mother whispering, “Do you think anybody sees us here?”)

Across from the Bijou was the Lyric. Once the spiritual home of classical music, it now catered to country. Walburn Clark crossed the street, literally and metaphorically, to scout talent. Every Saturday evening, the Lyric hosted the WNOX show, “Tennessee Barn Dance.”

“Bebe recruited some string players, particularly double-bass players—the ‘Bullfiddle,’” says Bryan. He mentions Hubert Carter, who would be prominent in the KSO in the ’40s. “Of course the sounds that came from those instruments were hardly akin to Bebe’s concept, but she didn’t object to working with them.”

History set the stage for what was probably the KSO’s single most dramatic concert. On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to play an afternoon concert at the Bijou. The audience entered the theater having just heard the first word of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. At least two musicians had relatives who were stationed there. But the show went on, as visiting pianist Eugenia Buxton played Rachmaninoff’s second concerto. Some ducked out at intermission for radio news. Then the orchestra played the scheduled Beethoven Fifth, already associated with the Allied war effort in Europe. Called to give an encore, the band played a tune they hadn’t rehearsed: “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Bryan remembers a vivid scene from the war years, when his grandmother and Harold Clark were staying in their cabin in Gatlinburg. It turned out there was a work camp of conscientious objectors nearby, many of them accomplished musicians from New York. Bertha corralled 10 to 15 of them in their cabin and conducted a rendition of Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos. “She was an enterprising woman, wherever she went,” he says.

Keith Bryan knew her well during that period. “She was always well turned out, just a beautiful lady,” he says. She and Harold liked to eat out, and every downtown restaurant, like the S&W, was full of people she knew. “BeBe would be dressed all to the nines, no matter where she was going,” he says. She didn’t drive, and didn’t need to; Harold was her chauffeur.

“And she was a card shark,” he says. “Bridge, gin rummy, cribbage. BeBe and I would play gin rummy until the world looked level.” Her bridge club met twice a week. “She wasn’t a very good loser, but nevertheless—” She and Harold both liked the movies, whatever was showing on Gay Street. And she loved to go swimming, especially in the cold pools in the mountains; Bryan remembers Emerts Cove, in particular. She would jump right in, he recalls. Harold would sit on the shore and laugh at her.

And she was a champion bowler. “I remember her going out with her bowling ball,” he says. “The girls would pick her up.” You wonder how many regulars knew they were bowling alongside the founder of a symphony orchestra.

She retired as conductor in 1946, when the board turned it over to award-winning North Carolina composer Lamar Stringfield, who sometimes tried to combine symphonic and country music, in 1947 featuring a bluegrass-ish group called Johnny Hopson and the Tennessee Valley Boys. The reason for his departure after one season, and subsequent retirement from music, is a matter of some speculation among historians.

Under the baton of its third conductor, David Van Vactor, the suave and cosmopolitan sometime composer, the KSO became more of a professional enterprise, with classically trained musicians recruited from music schools.

Some of the KSO’s first generation of musicians were content to stay on, in less prominent roles. Evelyn Miller, the soloist at that first concert in 1935, remained close to the symphony until her death only four years ago. Though no longer concertmaster, Harry Nides stayed on as violinist through the 1960s.

And on the same stage was Bertha Walburn Clark, now content to sit in the orchestra she founded, not on violin now but on viola, a late-life enthusiasm. Through the 1950s, fellow violist Katherine Crews sat next to her, a prospect she first found intimidating, but she says she met many people she wouldn’t have, because everyone had to come talk to Mrs. Clark. The KSO’s founder was approaching 80 when she retired from the symphony in 1962.

Bertha Roth Walburn Clark died in 1972.

Recently, her next-chair neighbor Crews obtained Clark’s viola and donated it to the symphony. Today, principal violist Kathryn Gawne plays Bertha’s old instrument.

You can watch a discussion of this story between Jack Neely, KSO Maestro Lucas Richman, and KSO violinist Norris Dryer at Knox ivi's The Scruffy Citizen.

© 2010 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

mrkirker writes:

Mr. Neely,
Why is writing historical program notes "a surprising role for a Texan"?
J.P. Long
Knoxville

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