Kenneth Leighton

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Kenneth Leighton, playing the piano, in 1981

Kenneth Leighton (2 October 1929 – 24 August 1988) was a British composer and pianist. His compositions include church and choral music, pieces for piano, organ, cello, oboe and other instruments, chamber music, concertos, symphonies, and an opera. He had various University appointments, notably as Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh.


Leighton was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire on 2 October 1929, to parents of modest means, who noted his musical ability early on and enrolled him as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. Encouraged by his mother and the parish priest (who helped obtain a piano), he began piano lessons and progressed precociously. In 1940, he gained a place at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, played at school assemblies and concerts, and composed settings of poetry for voice and piano and solo piano pieces (including the Sonatina Op.1a, 1946, his first published work). While still at school (in 1946) he obtained the Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music (LRAM) in piano performance. As a university student at Queen's College, Oxford from 1947–1951, on a Hastings Scholarship to study classics, he continued to study music, tutored by the composer Bernard Rose. At Oxford he came to the attention of Gerald Finzi, an early supporter and friend, who performed some of his works (e.g. Op.3 Symphony for Strings, 1949) with the Newbury String players and introduced him to Vaughan Williams, who facilitated and attended some of his performances in London.[1] He obtained a BA in Classics in 1950, and a BMus in 1951. In 1951 he was awarded a Mendelssohn Scholarship, which enabled him to study with Goffredo Petrassi in Rome, where he met his first wife, Lydia Angela Vignapiano, by whom he had two children (Angela and Robert).

On his return from Italy in 1952, Leighton taught briefly at the Royal Marine School of Music in Deal. He held a Gregory Fellowship in music from 1953–56 at the University of Leeds (where he was a friend of Geoffrey Hill), and in 1956 was appointed lecturer in music at the University of Edinburgh. In 1968, he moved to Oxford University, where he succeeded Edmund Rubbra as Fellow in Music of Worcester College. Leighton returned to Edinburgh as Reid Professor of Music in 1970, holding the chair until his death in 1988.[2] He married Josephine Anne Prescott in 1981.

Unlike most of his Oxford contemporaries, Leighton came from a working-class area of an industrial northern town; his early rise to prominence is all the more remarkable.[3] Although he spent much of his adult life in Scotland, he always regarded himself as a down-to-earth Yorkshireman. He eschewed the possibility of a career as a pianist, hoping that a University position would allow him greater creative freedom and time to compose, although he periodically gave recitals and broadcasts, and occasionally conducted the University orchestra. After the spell in Italy, his life was dominated by composing, which continued uninterrupted, notwithstanding an unsettled period in the late 1970s and early 1980s associated with divorce and remarriage. Leighton was a rather private man, averse to self-promotion and rather shy of social occasions, who treasured peace and quiet, although he enjoyed family life and teaching (notably harmony and counterpoint). For much of his career he managed to reconcile university commitments with composing, although he found this more difficult in later years and was intending to retire early to have more time for composition. Amongst his distinguished students were Donald Runnicles, Nicholas Cleobury, and the composers Nigel Osborne, who succeeded him as Reid professor at Edinburgh, and James MacMillan.[4] While he wrote a good deal of church music (and has occasionally been categorised too reductively as a church-music composer), he was not a church-goer or member of any congregation, nor even conventionally religious. His interests in literature and love of nature and countryside are reflected in the settings of English poetry in many works (e.g. Animal Heaven, Op.83; Symphony 3, 'Laudes Musicae', Op.90; Earth Sweet Earth Op.94). Fond of walking his dog on the hills, Leighton loved the Scottish highlands and frequently visited the western islands (in the 1960s often in an old camper van). Trips to Mull and Iona in the early 1970s foreshadow the opera Columba (Op.77, 1978). He also had friends on the island of Arran, which he visited regularly. He died at home in Edinburgh in 1988, six months after being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. His grave is in the Glen Sannox cemetery on Arran.


Leighton's earliest youthful works, characteristic of his Oxford years and well exemplified by Veris Gratia (Op.9, 1950), were influenced in part by the English tradition as represented by Vaughan Williams, Finzi, Herbert Howells, and Walton.[5] His own more distinctive style, however, emerged and consolidated rapidly between 1950 and 1955, and probably owes as much to the period of study with Petrassi in Italy and familiarity with the work of a wide range of 20th-century European composers. He maintained a lifelong passion for the music of Bach (cf. his award-winning Fantasia Contrappuntistica op.24, 1956, first perf. by Maurizio Pollini). A few pieces reflect experimentation or flirtation with serialism, although Leighton's works are more generally typified by a strong sense of lyricism, diatonicism, contrapuntal mastery, chromaticism and rhythmic invention.

He composed a wide range of music (over 100 works, 96 with opus numbers, below) for many different configurations of instruments, often for commissions, specific occasions and performers. His output includes church music, chamber, organ and solo piano music, as well as large-scale orchestral works and an opera (Op.77, 1978) based on the life of Columba (libretto by the poet Edwin Morgan), first performed in Glasgow Theatre Royal in 1981.[6] The sacred and liturgical music is widely known and performed regularly across the UK (eg Chandos, Hyperion, Naxos, ASV, Priory label recs.).[7] Leighton did much to keep alive and transform the Victorian tradition of English choral music, and helped to bring English church music into the twentieth century.[8] An enduringly popular early piece is "Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child," Op. 25b, a setting of the Coventry Carol, while the starkly beautiful hymn "Drop, drop, slow tears" (concluding Crucifixus pro nobis, Op.38, 1961) has also appeared in several recordings.[9]

The solo piano music, which ranges from charming miniatures for younger players to demandingly virtuosic works, has been recorded by various artists (Eric Parkin, Peter Wallfisch, Margaret Fingerhut, Angela Brownridge, Stephen Hough), as also the works for organ, which include such classics as the celebratory Paean (1966), the duet Martyrs (op.73) and the Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia (op.41), widely credited with injecting new life and vigour into the British organ repertoire of the late 20th century.[10] The works for cello (the lyrical Elegy (op.5) written while he was a student) appear on various recordings, notably by Raphael Wallfisch; the cello concerto was premiered by Florence Hooton and Sir John Barbirolli in 1956.[11]

Chamber works include the prize-winning Piano Trio (op.46), three string quartets, piano quintet and quartet, and the Fantasy Octet (op.87), incorporating themes by Percy Grainger, commissioned for the 1982 Edinburgh Festival Grainger centenary concert.[12] In recent years the larger-scale orchestral works have also become better known thanks to new recordings. Amongst these is the second symphony (Sinfonia mistica, Op.69, 1974), a meditation on death in memory of his mother, a powerful work of dramatic intensity (Hickox/BBC Wales). The last piano pieces mark the culmination of a lifetime of writing for the instrument (e.g. Four Romantic Pieces, Op.95, 1986).[13]

Most (although some notable exceptions remain) of Leighton's works are recorded and commercially available on CD. Much of his output is published by Novello and Co.

Main Works (Opus nos)[edit]

Op 1a Sonatina No 1 (piano); 2 Piano Sonata No 1; 2a Sonatina No 2 (piano); 3 Symphony for Strings; 4 Violin Sonata No 1 (& flute/piano vers); 5 Elegy (cello; & orch vers); 6 Veris Gratia Cantata; 7 Scherzo, Two Pianos; 8 Hippolytus (Cantata); 9 Veris Gratia; 10 Just Now the Lilac is in Bloom (Cantata Baritone/String Orch); 11a Napoli, Rhapsody on Neapolitan themes (piano/orch); 11 Piano Concerto No 1; 12 Violin Concerto; 14 Primavera Romana (orch); 15 Concerto for Viola, Harp, Timpani & String Orch; 16 The Light Invisible (chor/orch); 17 Piano Sonata No 2; 18 Passacaglia, Chorale and Fugue (org); 19 Burlesque (orch); 19a Serenade for Flute & Piano; 20 Violin Sonata No 2; 21 A Christmas Carol (orch & org vers); 22 Five Studies (piano); 23 Concerto for Oboe & String Orchestra; 24 Fantasia Contrappuntistica (piano); 25 Three Carols (inc. Lully Lulla); 26 Concerto for Two Pianos, Timpani, Orchestra; 27 Piano Sonata No 3; 28 The Birds (chor); 29 Fantasia on the name Bach (viola/piano); 30 Variations (piano); 31 Cello Concerto (orch; & cello/piano vers); 32 String Quartet No 1; 33 String Quartet No 2; 34 Piano Quintet; 35 Partita for cello/piano; 41 Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia (org); 42 Symphony No 1; 43 Seven Variations for String Quartet; 44 Mass (Double Choir); 45 Communion Service in D; 46 Piano Trio; 47 Pieces for Angela (piano); 48 Metamorphoses (piano); 49 Et Resurrexit (org); 50 Missa Brevis; 51 Conflicts: Fantasy on Two Themes (piano); 52 Sonata for Solo Cello; 53 Dance Suite No 1; 54 Three Psalms; 55 Easter Sequence (chor/org); 56 Six Study–Variations (piano); 57 Piano Concerto No 3; 58 Organ Concerto; 59 Dance Suite No 2; 60 Dance Overture; 61 Laudes Animantium (chor); 62 Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Second Service); 63 Piano Quartet (Contrasts and Variants); 64 Piano Sonata; 65 Six Elizabethan Lyrics; 66 Sarum Mass; 67 Mass for Ampleforth; 68 Laudate Pueri (chor); 69 Symphony No 2; 70 Fantasy on an American Hymn Tune (clarinet/cello/piano); 71 Laudes Montium (chor); 72 Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes (org); 73 Martyrs, Dialogues on a Scottish Psalm Tune (org); 74 Hymn to Matter (chor/orch); 75 Sequence for All Saints (chor); 76 Improvisations, De profundis (harpsic); 77 Columba (opera); 78 Columba mea, Song of Songs (voc/orch); 79 Awake my Glory (voc/chor/org); 80 Fantasy on a Chorale (Es ist genug)(violin/org); 81 Missa Cornelia (chor/org); 82 Missa de Gloria (org); 83 Animal Heaven (chor/orch); 84 These are thy wonders (voc/org); 85 Alleluia Pascha Nostrum (cello/pia); 86 Household Pets (piano); 87 Fantasy-Octet (Strings); 88 Concerto for Harpsichord, Recorder (or flute) and String Orchestra; 89 Dance Suite No 3; 90 Symphony No 3; 91 The World's Desire (chor); 92 Sonata for Four Hands (piano); 93 Veni Redemptor (org); 94 Earth, Sweet Earth (voc/piano); 95 Four Romantic Pieces (piano); 96 Prelude, Hymn and Toccata (piano).



  1. ^ D. McVeagh, 2005, Gerald Finzi. His Life and Music, Boydell Press, 182, 194; K. Leighton, Memories of Gerald Finzi; cf. in R. Jordan (ed.), 2007, The Clock of the Years. A Gerald and Joy Finzi Anthology, Chosen Press, 45-6.
  2. ^ Music Web International; Smith 2004, 8
  3. ^ For Finzi's visit to the Wakefield home, see McVeagh 2005, 215. And:
  4. ^ R.Dunnett "Learning with Leighton", The Full Score (Novello) Winter 1998, 103; P. Spicer, 2011, Invocation. Choral Music by Kenneth Leighton and James MacMillan, REG CD348, p.3.
  5. ^ Veris Gratia (RLPO/Handley/Wallfisch/Caird CHANDOS 8471), posthumously dedicated to Finzi, received various performances under Finzi's baton with Jacqueline du Pre and Anna Shuttleworth as soloists.
  6. ^ Roderick Brydon conducted; performed again in Glasgow Cathedral in 1986 and 1990
  7. ^ P. Hardwick, "The Liturgical Church Music of Kenneth Leighton, part 1", The Diapason, Feb 2005, 22–25; P. Hardwick, "The Liturgical Church Music of Kenneth Leighton, part 2", The Diapason, March 2005, 15–17
  8. ^ J. Craig-McFeely, 1993, Howells and Leighton, Sacred Choral Music, ASV CD DCA 851. See also H. Truscott, 1975, "Two traditionalists: Kenneth Leighton and John McCabe" in L. Foreman (ed), British Music Now: 145–54. London, Paul Elek.
  9. ^ E.g. Stephen Layton, Polyphony, Hyperion CDA66925; Spicer/Lumsden, Finzi Singers, Chandos 9485; C. Robinson, St John's College, Cambridge, Naxos DDD8.555795; John Scott, St Paul's Cathedral, Hyperion CDA66489; Shepherd, Schola Cantorum Oxford, Manor MLR0191; Jeffcoat, St.Catharine's, Cambridge, PRCD436.
  10. ^ F. Jackson, York Minster, Chandos 6602; J. Scott, Twentieth Century Organ Masterpieces, Priory PRCD643; Harrison/Leigh, Organ Duets, Lincoln Cathedral, Guild GMCD7368; Townhill, Complete Organ Works of KL, St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, PRCD326.
  11. ^ Wallfisch/Terroni BMS439CD; Thomson/Wallfisch/SNO Chandos 8741.
  12. ^ Themes of Grainger, Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble, Chandos 9346; Dutton Digital CDLX7118; Meridian CDE 84460 (Edinburgh Quartet); and CDE 84465.
  13. ^ P. Spicer, 2007, "Kenneth Leighton" in R. Jordan (ed), 2007, 256.
  14. ^ "Beginning of the competition". Bolzano: International Piano Competition Foundation Ferruccio Busoni. Retrieved 18 October 2010. 
  15. ^ Premiered by Aldo Ceccato in the Teatro Verdi, Trieste, Italy, 31.5.1966; UK premiere, with Charles Groves, RLPO, 17.10.1967; Brabbins/BBC Wales, Chandos 10608.


Apart from Smith (2004), which is marred by typos and minor errors, a good deal of information is contained in the booklets accompanying various Leighton CDs, notably those written by Adam Binks, Andrew Burn, Bryce Morrison and Paul Spicer. (This web page was edited by R. Leighton in 2013).