Its predecessor was the remarkable, though short-lived, Cumberland Forest Festival of 1950-51. After a six-year stillness on the Mountain, University Vice-Chancellor Edward McCrady stepped forward to restore the program. Edward 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 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 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. By the end of that decade, the festival featured two student orchestras and a festival orchestra composed of faculty and advanced students. This basic structure continues to the present day.
The present Festival carries elements of both McCrady’s musical utopia and McCrory’s focus on student development. Since 2010, the leadership structure has consisted of the director and an artistic advisory committee made up of SSMF faculty. Currently, leadership is provided by 2018 Artistic Director John Kilkenny and Managing Director Hilary Dow Ward.
The impact of Sewanee is felt in concert halls, conservatories, universities and teaching studios across the United States and around the world.