Music of Kent Kennan this weekend. As promised, a continuation of music from the RCA Victor set American Music For Orchestra (M-608) from 1938. This piece begins the set and is on side 1. A little bit about Kent Kennan via his obituary in November 2003.
The name of Kent Kennan is known to almost every undergraduate music student
in America: his books on counterpoint and orchestration have been required
reading for almost half a century. He hit the wider headlines twice in his
life: in 1936, when his only symphony won him the Prix de Rome, and earlier
this year, when a revival of the same work allowed its 90-year-old composer
to hear part of it again.
His personal modesty otherwise guaranteed him a lower profile than his
talent deserved: he pooh-poohed the idea that the symphony should be
revived, and unprotestingly allowed his composing to be pushed into the
sidelines by his teaching duties.
Even the manner of his death can be ascribed to his absolute lack of
self-importance. Last year he began a course of kidney dialysis but the
discomfort and length of his first two sessions decided him against
continuing the treatment. With typically understated humour, he began to
warn his friends: “I didn’t think it was worth it to do this for the rest of
my life just so I would feel a little better when I was 91.”
He observed the onset of the symptoms his doctors had warned him about with
equanimity: “I’m still here. I suppose I am falling apart a little bit day
by day, but it hasn’t gotten to the panic stage yet.” He never reached that
stage, either: he died in an Austin nursing home at peace with himself and
Kennan’s family orientation was towards public affairs: his father was a
lawyer, and his half-brother, the diplomat and writer George Kennan, was the
architect of the Truman administration’s policy towards the Soviet Union.
But Kent felt the tug of music. He first studied keyboard before enrolling
at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; he then studied at the Eastman
School of Music in Rochester, upstate New York, taking a BM in composition
and theory in 1934 and a MM in composition in 1936.
It was as a student on this latter course that he wrote the symphony that
took him to Rome in 1937, where he took composition lessons with the
esteemed Ildebrando Pizzetti. His stay in Rome lasted until 1939, and was
followed by a brief spell as instructor in theory and piano at Kent State
The larger part of his music dates from around this period. In Contemporary
Composers (1992), Russell Kane describes his early orchestral works as
“marked by elements of impressionism, with a constant Romantic undercurrent
which gives a strong emotional charge”. Among the pieces thus distinguished
are his much- recorded Night Soliloquy for flute and strings (or piano),
composed in 1936, Il campo dei fiori for trumpet and orchestra and the
Nocturne for viola and orchestra in 1937, and his Promenade and the
Coplandesque Dance Divertimento in 1938.
An Andante for oboe and orchestra followed in 1939, and in 1946 a Piano
Concertino closed his list of orchestral works. Kane writes of the
“exuberant” Il campo dei fiori that “the distinct valving of the jazz
soloist combines with the strongly evocative middle-register trumpet sound
associated with Italian concert bands”.
Kennan’s few instrumental pieces include two piano sonatas, begun in 1936
and 1942 and both left unfinished; Three Preludes appeared in 1939. So, too,
did his Sea Sonata for violin and piano, with a Scherzo, Aria and Fugato for
oboe and piano coming along in 1948. His most widely performed work, a
Sonata for trumpet and piano, was written in 1956.
In the meantime, in 1942, he had been drafted into the US Army Air Corps as
a bandsman, earning promotion to warrant officer bandleader, and was still
in uniform when, in 1944, his The Unknown Warrior Speaks, for unaccompanied
male-voice chorus, was performed in Washington DC in the presence of Eleanor
Roosevelt, the then First Lady.
From the mid-1950s Kennan the composer slipped from sight, his time consumed
by teaching, and his identification with the discipline undermined by the
intolerant serialist hegemony in American universities, and he embarked on a
30-year creative silence broken in the early 1990s by a handful of chamber
So there you have it – at least a little bit. Something to whet the appetite and dig around for more. In the meantime, enjoy this one and come back next week.