Kenneth Leighton (1929-88)


With the death of Kenneth Leighton in 1988 the world lost a composer of great distinction. Born in Wakefield on October 2 1929, he was a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral and was educated at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. While still at school he gained the LRAM Piano Performers diploma.

In 1947 he went up to The Queen's College, Oxford on a Hastings Scholarship in Classics: in 1951 he graduated both BA in Classics and BMus, having studied with Bernard Rose. In the same year he won the Mendelssohn Scholarship and went to Rome to study with Petrassi.

Kenneth Leighton was Professor of Theory at the Royal Marine School of Music 1951-53 and Gregory Fellow in Music at the University of Leeds 1953-55. In 1956 he was appointed Lecturer in Music at the University of Edinburgh where he was made Senior Lecturer and then Reader. In 1968 he returned to Oxford as University Lecturer in Music and Fellow of Worcester College. In October 1970 he was appointed Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh, the post which he held until his death in 1988.

Among the many prizes for composition awarded to him were the Busoni Prize (1956), the National Federation of Music Societies Prize for the best choral work of the year (1960), the City of Trieste First Prize for a new symphonic work (1965), the Bernard Sprengel Prize for chamber music (1966) and the Cobbett Medal for distinguished service to chamber music (1967).

In 1970 the University of Oxford awarded him the Doctorate of Music, and in 1977 he was made an Honorary Doctor of the University of St. Andrews. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1982.

As a pianist Kenneth Leighton was a frequent recitalist and broadcaster, both as soloist and in chamber music. His music is widely performed and in increasingly available on CD.

Mrs J.A. Leighton,
38 McLaren Road,
EH9 2BN,
Tel: 0131 667 3113

Email: Jo Leighton

The Leighton Trust (with link to concert information)

Leighton Discography

Kenneth Leighton - a 75th Anniversary Tribute

by Paul Spicer

What makes a composer worthy of the attention of posterity? Why does part of this tribute regret the far-too-widespread neglect of such a composer as Leighton? To my mind, a composer should have the technique to put his ideas across eloquently, have the ideas worthy of that technique, and an inner creative fire which communicates those ideas powerfully. The commentator Hugh Ottaway once said most tellingly, 'idioms come and go and history finds little to choose between them; the enduring factor is the quality of thought, which alone makes the idiom a living and vital thing'. At one stroke he demolishes the whole fashion bandwagon and puts the emphasis squarely where it belongs on the composer's creative integrity.

Leighton always had a very strong Romantic streak. His earliest works such as the beautiful Veris Gratia for oboe, cello and strings show his indebtedness to Vaughan Williams. It is no surprise that Gerald Finzi at the end of his life championed his music, encouraging this shy, working class northern lad, giving him his first performances with the Newbury String Players and thus gaining Leighton's eternal gratitude. Wakefield Cathedral was the first point of musical inspiration, and here it was that Leighton discovered the great panoply of music for the church which he himself so greatly enriched in future years. Careful nurturing at Oxford by Bernard Rose in particular ensured that his extraordinary natural compositional talent should be developed and recognised. First success came in the form of a Mendelssohn scholarship to study with Petrassi in Rome in 1951-2. This experience gave him wings and allowed his natural lyricism to flow between the science of contemporary techniques (which he used but rarely allowed to dictate style) and the ebb and flow of timeless counterpoint of which he was a master.

Leighton's stated influences were many and varied and included Bach and Brahms. If his developing style seemed far removed from the sound world of these mentors, essential elements of their style and processes became his staple diet. One of the most significant statements of Leighton's process came when he said 'All my days are spent trying to find a good tune'. If this is an exaggeration, it underlines the most important quality of his music which he shares with Bach and Brahms, that of lyricism. He also gained another hugely powerful tool from them in his use of pathos. Brahms understood the power of pathos instinctively. One only has to look at the simplicity of that perfect piano Intermezzo op.117 no.1 or the Amen from the Geistliches Lied op.30 to know how deeply he understood the power of quiet, reflective simplicity to affect the senses. Leighton, too, understood this and the third of the Romantic Pieces for piano op.95 is a moving example. This piece, for me, sums up why I believe Leighton deserves that recognition from posterity which I questioned earlier. It is only one example of which there are many, but it demonstrates timeless qualities which I believe to be essential to the positive judgement of future generations including a deep sense of humanity, of quiet protest, of overriding sensitivity, of joy and sadness, of resignation, and in the end quiet acceptance of the inevitable. It is a life's journey in microcosm. Leighton talked of 'wonder' in nature when referring to his solo cantata Earth, Sweet Earth op.94. And if one characteristic seems to communicate above all others in his music it is this searching for something other - for meaning in life and the order of the universe, God and Love which brings an added dimension to his creative genius. Perhaps, if I were to pare it down to its basic elements I would recognise the quality of ecstatic spirituality which is seen in both his life-enhancing scherzi as well as his reflective meditations.

Possibly Leighton's strongest card, however, is that all this emotional content is so finely balanced with the acuteness of his intellect and his ability as a pianist. Each of these elements fed the others. Thus, there was always the practitioner's practical appraisal of what was possible in performance and the intellectual's appraisal of the challenge of balancing the elements of heart and mind, style and content. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the Fantasia Contrappuntistica op.24 - a homage to Bach which won the Busoni Prize and was premiered by Maurizio Pollini in 1956.

Perhaps Leighton's misfortune was to be born at a time when musical experimentation was at its height. Thus, his rather conservative style made even his serial compositions a search for lyrical possibilities. He was also to some extent a formulaic composer whose mannerisms were often transposed from work to work and detractors would find reliance on certain notational figures and rhythmic cells tiresome. But this very insistence on his developed style was part of what makes the unique experience of Leighton's music. Hugh Ottaway's assertion about idiom goes to the heart of the matter. Sixteen years after his untimely death we are in a better position to recognise Leighton's vibrant creativity, his deep sensitivity, his communicating spirituality and the depth of his intellectual and technical prowess. We now need performers in all genres to take this music to their hearts and to allow it to work its magic on a new generation of audiences.

© Paul Spicer

This article appeared in The Full Score - a publication issued by the MusicSales Group 2004

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