Kaun was born in Berlin, and completed his musical training in his native city. In 1886 (or 1887), he left Germany for the United States and settled in Milwaukee, which was home to a well-established German immigrant community . As the conductor of local choral societies such as the Milwaukee Liederkranz and the Milwaukee Men's Choir, Kaun quickly acquired an important influence over the city's musical life. He also taught at the conservatory, where his colleagues included Wilhelm Middelschulte. Kaun's eldest son, Bernhard Kaun, later became a composer of film scores in Hollywood.
At the turn of the century, Kaun returned to Germany and continued his teaching in Berlin. Although he received numerous lucrative offers of employment from abroad, these inducements could not persuade him to leave Berlin a second time. In 1912, he was appointed to the Prussian Academy of Arts. He chronicled his eventful life in his autobiography Aus meinem Leben (From My Life). He died in Berlin.
Kaun composed in a Romantic style for a wide range of genres, including operas, symphonies, tone poems, pieces for solo organ and piano, as well as works for other combinations of instruments. His opera Der Fremde was first performed at the Dresden Hofoper (now the Semperoper) on 23 February 1920, with a cast including Richard Tauber, Elisabeth Rethberg and Friedrich Plaschke, conducted by Fritz Reiner.
Notable students include composer Fannie Charles Dillon.
- Märkische Suite for orchestra, op. 92
- Sir John Falstaff, symphonic poem, op. 60
- Piano Concerto in C minor, op. 115
- Octet, op. 34
- Symphony No. 3 in E minor, op. 96
- Sappho, musical drama
- Der Fremde (The Stranger)
- Der Pietist ("The Pietist", or "Oliver Brown")
- Humoresques for piano, op. 79
- Choralvorspiele for organ, op. 89
- Piano Trio No. 2, op. 58
- Hugo Kaun papers in the Music Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
- Brief profile in German
- Brief profile in English, with CDs, examples, video clip
- free sheet music by Hugo Kaun (2 Piano-Pieces)
- Free scores by Hugo Kaun at the International Music Score Library Project
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