Peter Mennin spent most of his life working within the academic environment and his music, in the American symphonic tradition, speaks from a broad neo-Romantic imagination. Mennin began his studies at Oberlin College, and upon completing military service in the early 1940s, he obtained his bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. (1947) degrees at the Eastman School.
During these years he composed three of his eight symphonies (1941, 1944, 1946); an Alleluia (1941) for chorus; Four Songs (1941) for soprano and piano on texts by Emily Dickinson; Concertino (1944) for flute, strings and percussion; the Folk Overture (1945) for orchestra; Sinfonia (1946) for chamber orchestra; and the first String Quartet (1941). In 1945 he won the first Gershwin Memorial Award for his Symphony No. 2 (1944).
The Symphony No. 3 (1946) from Mennin's younger years shows many of the techniques that he would explore in later works -- asymmetrical melodies of great lucidity and rhythmic invention, a bright clarity of orchestration and line, dramatic climaxes, and the use of chromatic inflection. Mennin's Concertato "Moby Dick" (1952) for orchestra is a dramatic work inspired by a reading of Herman Melville's classic novel. Mennin's intention was to create a depiction of the emotional impact of the book rather than a musical description of isolated incidents. The main motif appears in many variations throughout the piece. Towards the end, a beautiful and strangely archaic sounding chord accumulates. Trumpet and wind solos call through this texture, and resolve on a major chord. Other instrumental works created during these ten years were his Fantasia (Canzona and Toccata) (1947) for strings; the Symphony No. 4 (The Cycle) (1948) and Symphony No. 5 (1950); Canzona (1951) for band; the Concerto for Violoncello (1956); the String Quartet No. 2 (1951); and the Five Piano Pieces (1949). His late instrumental works include the Symphony No. 6 (1958); Symphony No. 7 (1963); his final symphony, Symphony No. 8 (1973); the Concerto for Piano (1958); Canto (1963) for orchestra; and Sinfonia (1971) for orchestra; the Sonata Concertante (1959) for violin and piano; and the Piano Sonata (1967).
Mennin also composed several beautiful pieces for chorus during 1948-1949, including A Song of the Palace, Crossing the Han River, and The Gold-Threaded Robe, which had texts by Kiang Kang-Hu (1948). Also from that period are Tumbling Hair (1949) with text by e. e. cummings, Bought Locks (1949) with text by Martial, and The Christmas Story, a larger work for soprano, tenor, chorus, brass quintet, timpani and strings. His last vocal works include the Cantata de virtute (1969) for narrator, solo voices, chorus, children's chorus, and orchestra, and Voices (1976) for low voice, piano, harp, harpsichord, and percussion.
After spending a year in Europe in 1957-1958, Mennin was appointed the director of the Peabody Conservatory where he remained from 1958 through 1962. He then became president of the Juilliard School of Music. During his career he received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Guggenheim Foundation among many others, and served as chairman of the National Music Council and president of the Naumberg Foundation.