The Knoxville Symphony Orchestra has long claimed to be the “oldest symphony in the South” or, in the most recent promotional literature, “the oldest continuing orchestra in the Southeast.” The KSO is certainly older than the average Southern symphony orchestra—or, for that matter, the average American symphony orchestra. However, they’re not the only organization to make the “Oldest Symphony Orchestra in the South” claim.
Comparing various claims would require some labor, as well as a universal standard of what constitutes a symphony. Is it a certain number of musicians? A certain frequency of performances? Professional status, for either the conductor or the musicians? What if a symphony closes temporarily? In fact there’s no agree-upon definition of what a symphony is, and whether continuity permits pauses. The KSO began as an extraordinarily small orchestra of 27 pieces, but grew rapidly to count 45 musicians by its third season, and has performed two or more shows every season since 1935.
The KSO is older than the symphonies of many larger cities, including Atlanta, Louisville, Nashville, and Memphis. It’s the oldest symphony orchestra in Tennessee. However, several Southern orchestras report earlier dates of origin. Charlotte’s symphony claims a 1932 birthdate. The Alabama Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham reports that it had been founded by 1933, with a board of directors and a fund-raising organization; by 1935, when the KSO performed its first regular concert, Birmingham’s ASO was three times the size.
No orchestra makes more of the Oldest Symphony in the South claim than Georgia’s Rome Symphony Orchestra, which is smaller and less active than the KSO, but cites a 1921 founding date, and touts its status liberally.
KSO historian Rudy Ennis says he first heard the KSO make that claim during the David Van Vactor days, in the ’60s. He has never tried to confirm or deny it. He says, however, that the KSO’s definition of its founding is more conservative than the estimates made by many orchestras; by looser standards, the KSO might reach back to various landmark assemblages in 1927 or 1924 or 1917 as its origin—rather than 1935, which was the beginning of an unbroken stream of prescription seasons.