Kenneth Leighton was an English composer of great distinction and teacher. He was a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral and educated at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. In 1946, while still at school he gained the LRAM Piano Performer's 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 in 1952-1953, and Gregory Fellow in Music at the University of Leeds from 1953 to 1955. In 1955 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.
Kenneth Leighton was one of the most distinguished of British post-war composers; over 100 compositions are published, many of which were written to commission, and his work is frequently performed and broadcast both in Britain and abroad.
Among the many prizes for composition awarded to Kenneth Leighton 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 services to chamber music (1967). In 1960 he was awarded the Doctorate in Music by the University of Oxford, and in 1977 was made an Honorary Doctor of the University of St Andrews for his work as a composer. He was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Music in 1982.
Kenneth Leighton utilised 12-tone procedures while basically adhering to a diatonic style. The works of his early maturity show a continuing desire to explore new forms, and to increase and crystallise his contrapuntal mastery with ever greater expressive force. The tremendous emotional tension he produced was always organically generated and devoid of gesture. Later scores displayed a greater concern with vertical methods, but with no diminution of his command of counterpoint. With the pieces of his last years, it became increasingly noticeable that a more relaxed and positive element had entered into his compositions, a new lyrical vein: not a reduction of strength or purpose, more a shedding of some of the intense retrospection which was such a feature of some of the scores from the late 1960's onwards. This broadening of emotional range can only make us regret that he did not complete the Fourth Symphony which he was contemplating at the time of his death. His contribution to the Anglican church music repertoire is frequently performed.
As a pianist Kenneth Leighton was a frequent recitalist and broadcaster, both as soloist and in chamber music. He recorded his piano music for the British Music Society and conducted many performances and broadcasts of his own music. His discography is extensive and expanding.