Ken Kennan

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 the world.

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 University, Ohio.

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 works.

Instead, he became a much- appreciated teacher, holding a variety of positions at the University of Texas, Austin, from 1942 until his retirement in 1983, with a brief absence during his war service and, in 1947-49, a professorship at Ohio State University, Columbus. And in old age he did return to his writing desk, producing not original works but expertly crafted arrangements: the Prokofiev Flute Concerto became a clarinet sonata in 1984 and a clarinet concerto in 1986; Brahms, too, came in for his attention.

Outside his home turf, he was acknowledged chiefly as the author of two best-selling textbooks: The Technique of Orchestration, first published in 1952, and Counterpoint, which came seven years after; the first book is now in its sixth edition and the second in its fourth. Counterpoint, in his precise definition, was "the art of combining two or more voices in a musically satisfying way". Donald Grantham, a colleague at the University of Texas and a former student, held on to the counterpoint and orchestration exercises Kennan set him:

They are a lesson in good editing, deftly mixing encouragement with Kennan's trademark skull and crossbones, which would appear whenever you sent an instrument out of its range or committed one of counterpoint's cardinal sins: parallel fifths or octaves.

Kennan earned a reputation as a conscientious and mild- mannered teacher, with an astonishing technical facility. He mixed a fondness for earthy humour with an old-fashioned courtesy: he would, for example, contrive to send out the female students before explaining to the men that a violin glissandi in Strauss's programmatic Till Eulenspiegel depicted Till relieving himself out of a courtroom window.

He had been abroad in 1939 when his teacher, the composer-conductor Howard Hanson, had conducted his prize-winning symphony. In spite of the work's reputation among cognoscenti (Russell Kane didn't mince his words: "one of the forgotten masterpieces of the American symphonic canon"), Kennan made no effort to revive it. The impulse came from Karl Miller, recordings archivist at the Austin campus:

About 10 years ago, I talked to Kent about the symphony, and he sat at the piano and played parts of it. He had not heard it since Hanson had sent him those scratchy aluminum discs.

Miller - whose CD label, Pierian Records, is on the point of releasing a recording of Kennan's chamber music - alerted Peter Bay, conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, to the work, initially in the teeth of the composer's objections:

When they first suggested it, I said no. It was written when I was an undergraduate at Eastman. It is an homage to Hanson, which means the little blue-haired ladies will like it.

Eventually, though, he acquiesced, and on 31 January and 1 February this year, Bay presented the slow movement of the symphony in concert as an early 90th-birthday tribute to its ailing but undaunted composer.

Martin Anderson

Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
? Three Pieces for Orchestra 3.00 stars  5CD
Kent Kennan Comments:
Julliard Ensemble cond. Dennis Russell Davis