VAN VACTOR (1906-1994), 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.
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.
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.
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 lasting 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 was 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.
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.
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 (now
deceased), married on May 28, 1931, resided in Knoxville for forty years,
later retiring to California. They had two children, daughter
Raven Harwood (nee Adriaen Virginia, now deceased) and son David
Landreth, living in Boston, Paris, and Normandy.