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Kent Kennan and “Three Pieces for Orchestra”

Kent Wheeler Kennan (April 18, 1913, Milwaukee, WI – November 1, 2003, Austin, TX) was an American composer, author, music educator, and university professor. He was born on April 18, 1913, in Milwaukee, WI, and demonstrated musical talent at an early age, beginning piano lessons at the age of six, and organ and flute studies shortly thereafter. His degrees in music came from the University of Michigan and the Eastman School of Music in composition and music theory. At the age of 23, he was awarded one of the most coveted prizes in music, the Prix de Rome which allowed him to study for three years in Europe, primarily at the American Academy in Rome. His half brother was George F. Kennan, a noted author, historian, diplomat, and Russian expert.

Kennan was one of the original six-member faculty of the College of Fine Arts created in 1940 at The University of Texas at Austin under the leadership of Dean William F. Doty. Except for a brief teaching stint at Kent State University and two years at The Ohio State University during the 1950s, he was a longtime professor at the University of Texas. He served the University, the college, and the School of Music in both teaching and administrative capacities during his forty years of academic service, retiring in 1983. In May 2001, the College of Fine Arts bestowed upon him its highest honor, the E. William Doty Award which recognizes individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to education, to arts and society, and to the college and the University.

His compositions include works for orchestra, chamber ensemble and solo instrument as well as songs and choral music. His Sonata for Trumpet and Piano is part of the standard repertoire for many collegiate trumpet studios. His Night Soliloquy, written in 1936 for solo flute, piano and strings, has been performed by every major orchestra in the country under such distinguished conductors as Toscanini, Ormandy, Stokowski, and Ozawa and recorded on six different labels. It has been and is considered a staple of the flute repertory. The Three Pieces for Orchestra were composed in Rome in 1936 and premiered in 1939 by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra. The three movements are “Promenade,” “Nocturne,” and “Il Campo dei Fior.” On May 5, 1957, Hanson and the Rochester orchestra recorded it for Mercury Records.

Several other works, such as “Three Piano Preludes” are also widely performed and recorded. In addition to his original compositions, Kennan made highly-regarded transcriptions of sonatas by both Brahms and Prokofiev. His transcription of the Prokofiev flute sonata for clarinet and orchestra has been performed and commercially recorded by leading clarinetist Richard Stolzman. In a decision that puzzled friends and admirers, Kennan composed his last major work in 1956 at the age of 43 and largely abandoned composition, writing only occasional small pieces and devoting himself to teaching and educational writing. His two books Counterpoint and The Technique of Orchestration are widely regarded as the best and most authoritative treatments of these subjects in English. Both have been in continuous use for more than forty-five years and have been the most frequently used classroom texts in their fields for decades.

Kennan was as generous with his resources as he was with his time and talent. He was a charter member and benefactor of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin. Also, he was a strong supporter of KMFA, Austin’s Classical Radio Station, and on occasion spent time manning the phones during pledge drives. In addition, he established an Endowed Graduate Fellowship in Music Composition or Theory which supported numerous music theory and composition students during his life, and part of his legacy includes a substantial scholarship endowment to the University’s School of Music for composition and theory students. He died in Austin on November 1, 2003.

The strength and expressivity of Kennan’s early works earned him a deserved status as one of the most important American composers of the first half of the twentieth century. The only one of his works in my collection is:

Three Pieces for Orchestra.


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