Kenton Coe Composer


I was born at one of the crossroads of music history. “Romantic” music had been pushed to a limit by Strauss and Mahler. Music critics were sarcastic about any further attempts along that line. Schoenberg (having committed one of the last romantic masterpieces) expiated his sin by developing a method of composition based on the artificial well-tempered twelve-tone scale (which doesn’t exist in nature.) What he did, in fact, delighted the critics and the academics by giving them something to talk about and intimidated the young composer; but the result was never popular with the paying musical audience.



My own musical background was pretty far removed from both trends. I was fascinated by suggestions of the avant-garde, but my earliest “influence” was the folk music and dances of my native Tennessee mountains.  However, one of my first phonograph record purchases was the Concord Sonata by Charles Ives. It seemed to me Ives pulled together everything that was to be admired: a music of the people brought together in an original and startling concept of contemporary dynamism. He became and remains to this day one of my idols.

To me, the peak of the twelve-tone attempt to “liberate” us from the self-indulgent Romantics, was the music of Webern; so delicate, yet strong as a spider’s web.

As a teen-ager, I loved the music of Stravinsky, Bartok, Berg and Prokofiev. They were outside the twelve-tone loop except for the last works of Stravinsky, who, needless to say, could do no wrong in any style.


Then I fell for Hindemith; more for his philosophy of “practical” music, than for his music itself. (But who has ever created a more beautiful work than the Sonata for Piano Four-hands?) I always hated the vision of the mythical Romantic composer starving in some attic. So, to me, Hindemith’s approach was refreshing and straight-forward; don’t worry about critical approval, he said, only time sorts out the good from the bad, or as Nadia Boulanger would say, the “useless” music.

Being around Hindemith at Yale reaffirmed my feelings that using a musical gift should be approached in a practical and down-to-earth way.

Composers cannot say: ‘I don’t care whether people like my music or not,’ unless he or she has a cushy academic or other job keeping the wolf from the door.


Then came the unexpected meeting with Nadia Boulanger after college graduation: I went to study with her for 2 months and stayed 3 years. She was the first person who told me she thought I had a “gift.” (I am aware that her judgment was not always unprejudiced!) But it helped me get through the next 60 years of my life and she is always over my shoulder.


There is no doubt that the critical pressure on composers brought on by the twelve-tone concept had greatly abated by the end of the 20th century. There is also no doubt that the approach has had its good affect on present-day output by helping adjust the ear to new sounds. It’s just that the true music amateur no longer has to feel that, ‘if I don’t like it, it must be good.’


The music of Samuel Barber has finally joined the “classics;” Elgar, who was so maligned at the beginning of the 20th century, is in the ascendency. Aaron Copland, certainly the most successful of all American composers, no longer has to feel embarrassed with his “popular” music. He tried to balance that output with some very complicated and experimental music (and he did it very well!)


At the beginning of the 20th century, the music world was populated by giants. The ranks have thinned, but fresh talent will rise as it always does. We do have John Adams, William Bolcom and Edgar Meyer here in America, and we have Polish composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and Finnish conductors like Sakari Oramo.


I only trust a music that is a language between the composer and the listener: sharing an intellectual and spiritual experience. That music can be as simple as the simplest mountain carol, or as complicated as a piece by Elliot Carter. The only way to appreciate music is to listen to it, and listen to it, and listen to it. If it is in an unfamiliar style, keep listening. I had to play the recording of the Ives’ Concord Sonata fourteen times to begin to understand what it was about, and it was worth the effort!


Thank you for reading these random thoughts. Let me write some music for you.


Contact me at


Kenton Coe

Text Box: Portrait by Tom Root