The Knoxville Music Festival: Big Ears’ Forgotten Predecessor

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

It was springtime, and musicians from around the world, from the big cities of the North and from the capitals of Europe, were converging on Gay Street. It exalted the old town in surprising ways. When it was underway, fans declared Knoxville to be “the Little Paris of the United States.”

It happened every year, well over a century ago. For decades, Knoxville had nurtured a reputation as a practical place of factories and wholesale warehouses. That changed, almost suddenly, in the 1880s.

The Knoxville Music Festival’s emphasis was classical, with a strong emphasis on contemporary opera.

The festival was a collaborative effort, but in the forefront were several who’d grown up speaking German. In 1874, Swiss immigrant Peter Staub had built Knoxville’s Opera House, on Gay Street.

The leader of the early festivals was a German immigrant who was by then well known in Knoxville. Gustavus Knabe—he pronounced it something like K’Nobba—had a resume that stood out in East Tennessee.

Born in Leipzig just after the Napoleonic wars, at a time when that mid-sized city was vigorously developing its reputation as one of Europe’s musical centers, Knabe studied at the Leipzig Conservatorium, directed its orchestra, for a time, and performed as a member of Mendelssohn’s orchestra—presumably the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra, of which the well known composer became director in 1835. What instrument Knabe played for Mendelssohn is obscure. He mastered at least a dozen: piano, violin, the flute and several reed instruments, and an exotic instrument only rarely seen in concert halls, known as a guitar.

According to people who knew him, Knabe was “associated with” young Richard Wagner, and “proud of his friendship with” Robert and Clara Schumann. Details are elusive, but they were all musicians close to the same age, and in Leipzig at the same time.

He was 30 when the Revolutions of 1848 unsettled Leipzig, and Knabe came alone to America, first settling in Wartburg, Tenn., oversold as an idyllic German refuge in the American wilderness. There he met a young woman from Stuttgart, married her, and proceeded to sire a large family. But Wartburg didn’t offer much demand for his talents, and he traveled around some, leading a military band for an Ohio regiment during the Civil War. Six months before the war’s end, he landed in Knoxville, and stayed.

By the time Knabe arrived here, some of his old Leipzig contemporaries, like Mendelssohn and Schumann, were dead. Knabe made much of his longer life, and for his last 40 years devoted himself to raising Knoxville’s standards in music.

He founded the Knoxville Philharmonic Society, a choral group; a Knoxville orchestra, apparently not durable enough to be considered a forerunner of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra; and the Knabe School of Music, at which he and several of his talented children taught hundreds of local students. He eventually became a part-time professor of music at the university, which awarded him a doctorate for his services. You might almost get the impression he was trying to make of Knoxville an American Leipzig.

Along the way he did some composing, too, including the official funeral march for former President Andrew Johnson in 1875, which he conducted himself—and a piece called “Have You Seen the Roses Blooming,” his tribute to Knoxville.

Knabe was in his mid-60s when he led the first of Knoxville’s annual Music Festivals.

In 1883, it was a four-day festival—on weekdays, not the weekend—and involved a vigorous combination of regional talent and performers from Cincinnati and Atlanta. They performed Donizetti’s comic opera L’elisir d’amore, the current and already popular Pirates of Penzance, the recent French comic opera Les Cloches de Corneville by Robert Planquette, and an act of Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha.

We’re used to thinking of opera as the legacy of composers who died before our grandparents were born, but in 1883, much of it was current. Flotow had died just weeks before the festival. When his work was presented at Staub’s, French composer Planquette was just 34.

Most local opera fans in 1883 were young, some perhaps rebelling from their parents’ homely ways. And the festival itself prompted an interesting rebellion of sorts that may bear some further study. A fiddle contest, performed as an irreverent prank by some disgruntled older guys at the very end of the festival, may have been the first country-music concert in history. Festivals have unpredictable results.

The festival engendered a surprising backlash from practical-minded Knoxvillians. Knoxville’s older two daily newspapers supported the festival enthusiastically, but the relatively new paper, the Sentinel, denounced the “alleged festival,” refusing even to run ads for this musical foolishness. Knoxville needed factories, not operas, they said, and visiting musicians were arrogant jerks who drank too much and behaved badly in restaurants.

Despite the resistance, the music festival’s high point may have arrived in 1889, when it was called the June Festival.

Young cellist Victor Herbert, not yet more famous as a composer, was there, as was Viennese soprano Emma Juch, who performed here more than once in the 1880s; extravagantly mustachioed German conductor Carl Zerrahn of the Boston Symphony; Italian cellist-baritone Giuseppe Campanari; and pianist Adele aus der Ohe, a favorite prodigy of Franz Liszt. Anywhere in the world in 1889, it would have been an impressive lineup. Various combinations of them performed more than 60 pieces in Knoxville that week. Thousands witnessed some of the performances; some were awed, some were alarmed, some were amused. The Sentinel predictably called it a “dismal failure.” But it left an impression.

Although it’s not obvious what became of the Knoxville Music Festival, it seems to have fizzled out in the 1890s, around the time that Knabe was forced to retire due to his painful rheumatism. He died in 1906. He
didn’t live to see the establishment of a permanent Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and his music festival was almost completely forgotten. Staub’s Opera House became a wrestling arena, later to be torn down for parking.

But when we’re lucky, good things come back around.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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