“The violin has tears,” said Jacob Bloom as he explained why he gave up the flute and began playing the violin.
Bloom was not only a master violinist. He founded the first Memphis Symphony Orchestra, brought the joy of music to thousands of Memphians and taught a generation of classical musicians who lived and worked in the Bluff City.
Jacob Bloom was born in the German state of Baden-Wurttemburg in 1842.
At the age of 8 he began playing the flute but quickly abandoned it for the violin. When he turned 23, Jacob immigrated to the United States and settled in Cincinnati, Ohio. There he led the violin department at the conservatory of music and became a nationally known player.
In 1871 he traveled to Boston and performed with the composer Johann Strauss II. At the turn of the 20th century the local Beethoven Club invited Bloom to Memphis where he gave several performances and with his wife Lily Katzenberger, he relocated to Memphis in 1905.
Bloom established the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra but his goal was to form a full-fledged classical ensemble for the Bluff City. After four years of directing the Beethoven Symphony, Bloom worked with other like-minded Memphians to create the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
After incorporating and raising an endowment fund, the orchestra made its debut at the Lyceum Theater on Jan. 13, 1910. Hundreds of well-dressed and jewel-bedecked Memphians sat in the audience surrounded by azaleas, roses and bright electric light.
Bloom began the performance with a selection from Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser. The orchestra also performed Louis Victor Saar’s “the Gondoliera” and Mme Mary Hissem de Moss sang seven songs, which brought the audience to their feet. For the encore the orchestra delighted the attendees with “Traumerei” (dreaming) from Robert Schumman’s “Kinderszenen,” (Scenes from childhood). When it was over, a reporter for The Commercial Appeal declared it was a “triumph for Memphis art.”
Bloom remained with the symphony until his retirement in November 1911. After his retirement Bloom taught violin and operated an informal salon for Memphis musicians in his apartment at the Parkview Hotel.
Affectionately known as “Dad,” Bloom spun engaging tales of playing in Germany and performing with Strauss. Meanwhile the symphony continued under other leadership for many years after Bloom’s retirement.
However, with the popularity of Jazz and the Blues, many Memphians lost interest in classical music and the symphony disbanded in 1926. A decade later the Works Progress Administration provided funds to hire 30 unemployed Memphis musicians who performed several free concerts under the direction of Joseph Henkel.
Shortly before his death in December of 1937, Bloom lamented that Memphis had no symphony orchestra.
“We have plenty of talent here. Many smaller cities support a symphony, why can’t we?,” the maestro sighed. Two years later Bloom’s dream became reality when the new Memphis Symphony Orchestra was inaugurated with a concert on March 13, 1939, at the Goodwyn Institute.
For 81 years the Memphis Symphony Orchestra has made the world’s music available to the citizens of Memphis while at the same time contributing to the Bluff City’s storied musical legacy that has brought tears of joy and sadness to human beings across our globe.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.