Kent Wheeler Kennan, classical composer, music professor, and orchestrator, was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 18, 1913. At an early age he demonstrated musical talent. He began piano lessons at six years old and flute and organ studies thereafter. Initially, he studied architecture at the University of Michigan but later switched to liberal arts and composition and earned degrees from the University of Michigan and then the Eastman School of Music (where he studied under Howard Hanson) in composition and music theory. Several of his early orchestral pieces were later recorded by the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra under Hanson. In 1936 at the age of twenty-three, Kennan was honored with the coveted Prix de Rome, for a symphony that he wrote. This award enabled him to study three years in Europe, primarily at the American Academy in Rome.
After his studies, Kennan briefly taught at Kent State University. His remaining long career in teaching was spent at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1940 he became one of the original faculty for the College of Fine Arts, headed by Dean E. William Doty. Except for a two-year stint at Ohio State University and his military service, Kennan taught and administrated at the University of Texas for some forty years.
During World War II he was drafted into the United States Army Air Corps as a bandsman and was later promoted to warrant officer bandleader. His work, The Unknown Warrior Speaks, for unaccompanied male-voice chorus, was performed for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Washington, D.C., in 1944.
As a composer, Kent Kennan's music was compared sometimes to early Samuel Barber, Paul Hindemith, and even Igor Stravinsky. His compositions included works for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instrument, and songs and choral music. Kennan's best-known work, Night Soliloquy (1936), a piece for solo flute, piano, and strings, has been played by the major orchestras in the United States under such conductors as Leopold Stokowski, Seiji Ozawa, Eugene Ormandy, and Arturo Toscanini. In 1939 Kennan composed an andante for oboe and orchestra and in 1946 a piano concertino. Kennan also wrote some instrumental pieces, including two piano sonatas, in 1936 and 1942, which were left unfinished. Three Preludes was written for piano in 1939 along with his Sea Sonata for violin and piano. In 1948 he wrote Scherzo, Aria and Fugato for oboe and piano. His widely performed work, Sonata for Trumpet and Piano, was written in 1956. He was forty-three years old when he abandoned his composition career and devoted himself to teaching and educational writing. His teaching career took precedence over composing from the mid-1950s until the early 1990s, when his creative silence was broken by a handful of chamber works.
Major testaments to Kennan are his landmark textbooks. In 1952 he wrote The Technique of Orchestration, which was in its sixth edition (revised with Donald Grantham) in 2002. He wrote Counterpoint in 1959 (in its fourth edition in 1999). These books have remained educational staples for the music student across the United States for more than five decades. In later years, Kennan showed an interest in transcriptions. He arranged Prokofiev's Sonata Op. 94 for clarinet and piano and Brahms's A Major Violin Sonata and, also by Brahms, an arrangement of the Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2, for cello and piano.
After some four decades of academic service, Kennan retired in 1983. He was a member of the American Society of Composers and Performers, the National Association of Composers, and the American Association of University Professors. He was also a founding member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin. He was a strong supporter of Austin's classical radio station. He donated his archives of musical scores, scrapbooks, and correspondence, as well as his book collection to the University of Texas. He also left a significant scholarship endowment to the university for composition and theory students.
In May of 2001 he was bestowed with the highest honor the College of Fine Arts has to offer—the E. William Doty Award—which recognizes individuals who have contributed to education, arts, and society, and to the college and university. He was inducted into the first class of the Austin Arts Hall of Fame in 2002.
In 2003 Kennan was allowed to hear part of his only symphony, the work which won him the Prix de Rome, once again, even though he was reticent about the idea that it should be revived. Kennan was very modest when it came to his compositions. He always allowed his composing to be pushed to the sidelines by his teaching studies. The Austin Symphony Orchestra performed the slow movement of the symphony as an early ninetieth-birthday tribute to Kennan. According to Bryce Jordan, former chairman of the UT music department, "The guy was a superb user of musical materials." UT composer and professor Dan Welcher described Kennan as the "very picture of the gentleman composer" who "offered composers a model of how to carry ourselves as creators, teachers, advocates."
Kennan died on November 1, 2003, in Austin. He never married. He was survived by his half-brother, George F. Kennan, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union and main architect of the Cold War policy of containment. Kennan was also survived by numerous nieces and nephews.