He learned to play the organ and the piano and received degrees in composition and music theory from the University of Michigan and the Eastman School of Music in composition and music theory. At the age of 23, he was awarded the Rome Prize, which allowed him to study for three years in Europe, primarily at the American Academy in Rome. He was the half brother of the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan.
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 was written in 1936 and is set for solo flute, piano and strings. 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 books Counterpoint and The Technique of Orchestration have been widely used as classroom texts.
On May 5, 1957, Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra recorded Kennan's Three Pieces for Orchestra, a work composed in Rome in 1936 and premiered in 1939 by Hanson and the Rochester orchestra. It was released by Mercury Records on LP (SR90147) and CD (434307-2). The three movements are "Promenade," "Nocturne," and "Il Campo dei Fior" ("The Field of Flowers)."
- Kennan, Kent. The Technique of Orchestration. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1952, 1970, 1983, 1990, 1996, 2002. ISBN 0-13-900308-8. ISBN 0-13-466327-6. ISBN 978-0-13-466327-2.
- Kennan, Kent. Counterpoint. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1987.
- Liner notes for Mercury 434307-2
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