The East Texas Symphony Orchestra was founded in Tyler, Texas, as the Tyler Symphony in 1934. The symphony was a non-professional group composed of lawyers, oil operators, teachers, and music students from Tyler Junior College. The Tyler Symphony Orchestra Association was officially chartered in February 1936. Its original founders were Dr. H. R. Coats, W. C. Windsor, and Mrs. Talbot Williams, all three of whom continued to play important roles after the association’s founding. W. C. Windsor, oil and banking entrepreneur, initially headed the Orchestra Association as well as several other community organizations. His goal was to turn Tyler into a center for classical music in East Texas. Windsor’s wife, as a member of the Music Committee of the Tyler Women’s Forum, also played a significant role in the creation and early support of the Tyler Symphony Orchestra. Mrs. Talbot Williams served as executive secretary of the Orchestra Association from 1934 until 1942.
The orchestra held its first concert in March 1936. During the early years, the symphony played for the coronation of the queen of the Texas Rose Festival. The symphony and the festival, however, suffered similar fates when many local participants enlisted in the military during World War II. As a result, both organizations temporarily suspended their activities in 1942.
The first conductor of the symphony was Vernon Stranger of the Shreveport Symphony. In 1938 the association named Fritz Fall the first resident conductor of the symphony. Fall came to the United States in 1937 ahead of Germany’s annexation of Austria. Fall was the Kapellmeister (bandmaster) of the Vienna Volksoper until his departure for America. His career as conductor began in 1924 and saw him lead operas in cities such as Bremen, Krefeld, Düsseldorf, and Bruenn. In Texas, in addition to leading the Tyler Symphony, Fall also taught at the Hockaday Institute of Music in 1939 and directed several groups in Dallas, including the Schola Cantorum, the Civic Opera Association, and the Opera Study Club. He remained director of the Tyler Symphony until World War II.
Fall’s unique gift of leadership was of great importance to a group composed of non-professional musicians from many walks of life. The symphony’s membership grew from forty-nine in 1938 to sixty in 1940 and boasted that it represented almost every city in East Texas. Distinguished guest performers appeared with the symphony, including Chase Baromeo of the Metropolitan Opera.
World War II led the association to postpone further events, but in January 1950 Varina Powell, a violinist with the symphony, and Roger Harris, musician and member of the Tyler Chamber of Commerce, reorganized the symphony through the Chamber’s Civic Department. The new organization maintained the region-wide membership of the Tyler Symphony Orchestra and renamed itself the East Texas Symphony Orchestra in 1954. The new symphony spent many years under the direction of Joseph Kirshbaum, a music professor at North Texas State Teachers College (now the University of North Texas). Kirshbaum’s many accomplishments included instituting a children’s concert series for area elementary students in 1951. He retired in 1978.
In 1955 the Women’s Symphony League of Tyler, Inc., was established, and the group has continued into the twenty-first century as the symphony’s most significant financial supporter. Annual park concerts began in 1986 and included a fall concert in conjunction with the Texas Rose Festival. In the 1997–98 season the orchestra performed in its new venue, the R. Don Cowan Fine and Performing Arts Center at the University of Texas at Tyler. The symphony has developed a number of programs to provide for interaction between the orchestra musicians and children, including “Meet the Masters,” a program that began in 1999 and is designed to introduce classical music to elementary school students. Per Brevig was named conductor in 2002. Beginning in 2011 the orchestra also offered more intimate performances at the newly-renovated Liberty Hall in downtown Tyler. Richard Lee was hired as music director and conductor in 2012. The East Texas Symphony Orchestra consisted of approximately fifty-two musicians from throughout East Texas as well as the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex in 2015.