Kenton Coe is a classical composer whose works have been signiﬁcantly inspired by Appalachian melodies and themes. Coe’s creations—operas, choral works, anthems, ﬁlm scores, and orchestral compositions—reﬂect a strong sense of place (in terms of concept and function) and have been performed by major symphonies and other ensembles across the United States and in Europe.
The son of an U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ofﬁcer and his wife, Coe was born November 12, 1930, in Johnson City, Tennessee. He began his formal musical training at age seven at the Cadek Conservatory in Chattanooga. After moving to Knoxville with his family, he took after-school folk dance classes directed by Ethel Capps, who later became a well-known music and dance instructor. During these sessions, Coe was ﬁrst exposed to the traditional Appalachian music that would inspire him throughout his career.
The composer graduated with a degree in music history from Yale University in 1953, then spent three years in Europe at the Paris Conservatory and Fontainebleau School studying with Nadia Boulanger. Returning to the United States, Coe took a job as production manager at New York City–based Vox Records and, receiving a MacDowell Colony fellowship, began to work on his ﬁrst major composition in collaboration with French playwright Julien Green. That work, an opera entitled South, was successfully premiered by the Opera of Marseilles in 1965. Staged by the Paris Opera in 1972, it remains the only opera by an American composer ever performed by that prestigious company.
Coe went on to produce numerous other works, including the opera Rachel (about the wife of President Andrew Jackson), for which fellow Tennessean and Emmy Award winner Anne Howard Bailey wrote the libretto. Coe has also composed ﬁlm scores for James Agee Film Project documentaries, many of which explore topics related to Appalachia.
Coe returned to Johnson City in 1974. He received the prestigious Lyndhurst Prize in 1985 and the Tennessee Governor’s Award in the Arts (individual artist category) in 1990.
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"Kenton Coe," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 26 May 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=57>
"Kenton Coe." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved May 26, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=57