A native of Johnson, City, Tennessee, Kenton Coe began his musical training at the Cadek Conservatory in Chattanooga and continued studies in Knoxville before attending Sewanee Academy. He was at Hobart College in upstate New York for two years before entering Yale University from which he graduated as a History of Music major. He studied composition at Yale with Paul Hindemith and Quincy Porter. He worked privately for three years in Paris with Nadia Boulanger both at the Paris Conservatory and the Fontainebleau School and received two French Government scholarships at her request.
Sponsored by Aaron Copland, Kenton Coe has received two fellowships from the MacDowell Colony where he began his first full-length opera, "South," which was premiered in 1965 by the Opera of Marseilles under the direction of conductor Jean-Pierre Marty. A new production of "South" was given by the Paris Opera with an opening night Gala in the presence of President and Madame Pompidou. A studio recording by the French Radio of this opera was given as a part of their American Bi-Centennial celebration and has been rebroadcast most recently in 1989.
He has written a one-act comedy, "Le Grand Siecle," on a text of Eugene Ionesco, which was premiered by the Opera of Nantes and later recorded for broadcast by the French Radio. Kenton Coe has sketched a second full-length opera, "The White Devil," based on the Jacobean play by John Webster and is collaborating with Allen Cargile on a chamber opera based on James Agee's "The Morning Watch."
In 1989, the Knoxville Opera Company gave in both Knoxville and Nashville the highly successful world premiere performances of his third opera, "Rachel," based on the tragic love story of Andrew and Rachel Jackson. The libretto was created by fellow-Tennessean and Emmy-Award-winning TV writer, Anne Howard Bailey.
Kenton Coe has written "The River," a musical play about early Tennessee settlers, for the Chattanooga Boys Choir who toured the work extensively during the Bi-Centennial year and have continued to perform it annually ever since. This successful collaboration led in 1995 to a second commission of Three Appalachian Carols. The American premiere of his Sonata for Piano was performed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1977 by Kenneth Huber.
An active member of the Episcopal Church, he has been commissioned to write numerous anthems for various parishes. He wrote "Celebration Hymn" for the installation of the 8th Bishop of Missouri in St. Louis under the direction of Ronald Arnatt. Kenton Coe composed the film scores for Universal's "Birds in Peru," written and directed by Romain Gary for his wife Jean Seberg, and for five full-length documentary films by director Ross Spears: "Agee," "The Electric Valley," "Long Shadows," "To Render a Life," and "Tell About the South." "Agee" received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary and has had numerous international showings including a Kennedy Center premiere attended by President Carter. "The Electric Valley" has been shown nationally on PBS.
Celebrated organist Stephen Hamilton has commissioned from Kenton Coe several works including the "Fantasy for Organ" and "VI Variations." Commissioned by the Festival du Comminges in southern France, the "Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion" was premiered there in 1980 with Hamilton as soloist and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse under the direction of Jean-Pierre Marty. The double New York premiere took place in 1992 at the Church of the Holy Trinity and Trinity Church-Wall Street with Hamilton as soloist and the Manhattan School Orchestra under the direction of Glen Cortese. Dr. Hamilton gave the first performance of the "Hymn-Tune Preludes" at the 1981 Spoleto Festival in Charleston.
The Johnson City Symphony, for which Kenton Coe is the honorary Composer-in-Residence, has commissioned and premiered the "Scherzo for Clarinet, Brass and Strings" in 1986; "Elegy" for soprano and chorus in 1982; "Schumann Study," a concerto for oboe in 1985; the orchestral version of "Hymn to Music" in 1991; and "Echoes of Old Hymn-Tunes" in 1994.
Other commissions include "The Legend of Candy's Creek" for the Knoxville Ballet and the Knoxville Youth Symphony and "Carols from the Appalachian Mountains" for the Kingsport Symphony in 1987. "Ischiana," an overture for orchestra, was commissioned by the Baton Rouge Symphony for the 40th anniversary season in 1989 and has subsequently been performed under the direction of conductor James Paul by several orchestras, including in 1995, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Young Musicians' Symphony of London has commissioned the "Purcell Suite" for performances during the 1995 Purcell tercentenary. Kenton Coe is collaborating with author Lee Smith on a performance piece for narrator and symphony and with Ross
Spears for the documentary "Tell About the South."
Named "Composer of the Year" by the Tennessee Music Teachers' Association,
this organization commissioned the cantata "Handwriting on the Wall" for
the 25th anniversary concert in Nashville in 1978. Among other professional
and academic honors, he has been elected a National Patron of the music fraternity Delta
Omicron, who commissioned "Nightdances" for flute and guitar
for their international convention in 1989. Tusculum College awarded him their
highest honor, The Samuel Doak Award. The Lyndhurst Foundation awarded Kenton
Coe the Lyndhurst Prize in 1985, and in 1990, the state of Tennessee honored
him in the Artist category with their biennial Governor's Award in the Arts.