David Van Vactor came to Knoxville in 1947 as head of UT’s new Fine Arts Department and conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. Under his direction, the orchestra experienced a period of growth and technical polish and made its first professional recording for the CRI label. The Fine Arts Department, including both music and art, flourished under his leadership.
He received both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music from Northwestern University and studied in Vienna and Paris. A protégé of Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he held the Frederick Stock Conducting Scholarship from 1939 to 1942, additionally serving as assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony. He was flutist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 13 years, taught theory at Northwestern University for seven years, and from 1943 to 1946 was assistant conductor of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra while serving as head of theory and composition at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. He composed five symphonies between 1937 and 1945.
He first won a $1,000 prize in a competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted the premiere performance of Symphony No. 1 by that orchestra in Carnegie Hall in 1939. His second symphony was commissioned by the Sixth Marine Corps and was first performed by the Indianapolis Symphony in 1943. His Fifth Symphony was commissioned by the Tennessee Arts Commission as part of the observance of the American Revolution Bicentennial and was first performed by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in 1975, with Arpad Joo conducting. Numerous orchestral works and concertos and works for solo instrument with orchestra were among his accomplishments.
In 1958 he accepted a Fulbright grant to Frankfurt, Germany, and while there he conducted the London Philharmonic and the Palmengarten and Jugend Sinfonie in Frankfurt. In 1965 Van Vactor was guest conductor of the orchestras in Rio de Janeiro and Santiago and was also a visiting professor at the Universidad de Chile. He composed more than 88 works. He retired as conductor of the Knoxville Symphony in 1972 and from UT in 1977. The Tennessee State Legislature named him Composer Laureate of Tennessee in 1975.
In 1986 he made a major donation to the UT Libraries, which included many of his original scores, beginning sketches from his compositions, and full orchestral scores of major twentieth century composers with whom he had studied and performed. The gift also included orchestral scores from twentieth-century composers (e.g., Victor Herbert) that were very rare, works by South American composers, tapes of the Knoxville Symphony, and a large number of miniature scores.