Our History

Sewanee Summer Music FestivalSewanee Summer Music Festival


The Sewanee Summer Music Festival is one of the venerable summer music institutes in the country. The immediate predecessor of SSMF was the remarkable, though short-lived, Cumberland Forest Festival of 1950-51. The Cumberland Festival was directed by the distinguished American composer Roy Harris, and was a joint venture with George Peabody College in Nashville (absorbed a quarter century later by Vanderbilt University). The Festival was intimate in size, but was arguably the most exceptional gathering of musical talent the Mountain has ever seen: in addition to Harris, violinist Josef Gingold, violist Walter Trampler, and the old Viennese conductor Richard Lert (who as a child had met Brahms) were on hand, as well as — perhaps most notably — the brilliant young conductor Lorin Maazel. The Festival seemed to have a bright future. A radio contract with CBS was in the offing. But Harris abruptly cancelled the Festival shortly before the 1952 season was to begin. According to Harris, he was unwilling to work under the auspices of what was then a segregated institution. (Documents in the University’s Archives show that University officials at the time believed this was a pretext and that Harris had grown tired of the venture.)

After a six-year stillness on the Mountain, University Vice-Chancellor Edward McCrady stepped forward to restore the program.  Ned McCrady had a Jeffersonian range of interests. He was a scientist, an architect of considerable skill, an administrator; and, like Jefferson, an amateur violinist. McCrady had visions of creating a little musical utopia in Sewanee when he resurrected the idea of a summer festival in 1957, the first season of the present Sewanee Summer Music Festival. Known then as the Sewanee Summer Music Center, the institute was first closely allied with the Chattanooga Symphony. Julius Hegyi, then conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony, was the first director of SSMC.

Present at the creation was a young cellist of extraordinary capacities named Martha McCrory. In the early years, McCrory filled many roles: faculty cellist, business manager, and recruiter, barnstorming her way across back roads in Alabama and Georgia in search of students. McCrory became executive director of the Center in 1963, and remained at this post for a remarkable tenure, retiring in 1998. During the 1960s, the Center expanded dramatically under McCrory’s leadership; and by the end of that decade had more or less assumed its present structure: two student orchestras and a festival orchestra composed of faculty and advanced students.

The present Festival continues the vision of McCrory in its focus on student development and its unique devotion to chamber music performance. In 2000, McCrory was succeeded by Steven Shrader, professor of music at the University, in the office of Artistic Director. Pianist, conductor, and musicologist, Shrader dubbed the program the Sewanee Summer Music Festival, emphasizing the great breadth of performances and high musical standards he upheld for the institution.  Following Shrader, two notable conductors held terms as Artistic Director:  Victor Yampolsky, conductor at Northwestern University (2005), and James Paul, of the Oregon Festival of American Music and Oregon Coast Festival, (2006-09).

In 2010 the Festival structure changed, with Katherine Lehman, violinist and professor at the University, assuming the directorship. Emblematic of Sewanee’s distinctive collaborative spirit, an Artistic Advisory Committee of dedicated SSMF faculty was formed to provide artistic guidance for the program.

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