Brenton was born in Melbourne, Australia in December 1952. He studied History, Politics and Music at Monash University, and later composition and theory with Donald Freund at the University of Memphis in the USA and with Peter Sculthorpe at the University of Sydney. The University of Melbourne awarded him the Doctor of Music degree in 1987. From 1982-2007 he was employed in the Faculty of Music, University of Melbourne where he was Professor of Music and Head of Composition.
In January 2014 Brenton received an AM - Member of the Order of Australia - in the Australia Day Honours for “significant service to music as a composer, educator and mentor”.
In 1991 he signed a publishing contract with G. Schirmer, Australia (Music Sales). He has won numerous prizes for composition including First Prize in the 1981 Townsville Pacific Festival's National Composition Competition for his orchestral work Festive Overture; the Albert Maggs Award; two APRA Music Awards for his orchestral works The Mountain and Toward The Shining Light; First Prize in the Hambacher Preis International Composers' Competition, West Germany for his Tuba Concerto; and in 1994 he received the Paul Lowin Song Cycle Award, Australia's richest composition prize, for Bright Tracks for mezzo soprano and string trio. His orchestral work Stars In A Dark Night (Symphony #2) received four 'Sounds Australian' National Music Critics' Awards including 'Best Australian Orchestral Work in 1989' and was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's entry to the prestigious Paris Rostrum of Composers in 1990. In 2001 he received the Australian Music Centre’s Victorian Award for Best Composition – Dark Side (Symphony #5), and in 2002 his Federation Flourish was nominated for an APRA/AMC “Orchestral Work of the Year”.
His music has been performed at many international festivals including The Stroud Festival, England; the 11th Berlin Biennale; the Festtage fur Musik in East Berlin; Darmstadt Summer School, West Germany; the Music Today Festival, Tokyo; the Hong Kong and Oslo World Music Days; Asian Music Festivals in Japan and Korea; Musica Nova Festival in Munich; the BBC Proms; the European Brass Band Championships in Birmingham; and in Australia at the Adelaide Festival, Musica Nova Festival, Brisbane; Summer Music, Moomba and Spoleto Festivals in Melbourne and the Townsville Pacific Festival. There have also been performances in England, Germany, New Zealand, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Spain and China.
He has had performances by all of the major orchestras in Australia: the Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Queensland, Tasmanian and West Australian Symphony Orchestras, the Australian Youth Orchestra and Camerata Australia, and by the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in Munich, the Pacific Ocean Orchestra and the Krasnoyarsk Orchestra in Russia, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Moldova, the Ulster Orchestra, and the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in Finland. In July 1994 The Australian Youth Orchestra conducted by Yakov Kreisberg performed Festive Overture on their world tour, including the BBC Proms, at the Royal Albert Hall and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
Brenton has also written several major brass band works; he was commissioned to write Winds of Change, which was premiered at the 2000 European Brass Band Championships (available on CD) in Birmingham by the Yorkshire Building Society Brass Band, conducted by David King, and broadcast, on BBC Radio (see Reviews). This work was the A Grade Test Piece at the 2002 Australian Brass Band Championships held in Geelong. Brenton’s 30 minute work Gates of Day was premiered as the final work in the 2001 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts. Scored for 100 brass players (4 brass bands), military band (conducted by Graham Lloyd) and 400 bell-ringers playing 2001 bells, it was played at the outdoor Sidney Myer Music Bowl to an audience of several thousand.
In 2001 he was one of seven composers commissioned to compose a work, Jagged Tears, for the Field of Bells - a computer controlled interactive installation (a public music instrument) - at Birrarung Marr in Melbourne. Jagged Tears can be heard at 9am, 12.30pm and 5pm every day.
In 1988-89 he was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's Inaugural Composer In Residence. In 1997 he received the Jean Bogan Prize for his solo piano work Dying of the Light and in 1998 he received the Michelle Morrow Memorial Award for Composition and an Explorations Opera Project grant. In 1998 he spent three months in Italy on fellowships awarded by the Civitella Ranieri Foundation and a Bellagio Study Center Award from the Rockefeller Foundation. In November 2005 he returned to Italy as a fellow at the Ligurian Study Center in Bogliasco, Italy.
In 1999 he received the prestigious Don Banks Award from the Australia Council, for his contribution to Australian Music, which enabled him to compose for most of that year, including visits to the USA (Visiting Professor of Composition at Indiana University), England and Russia. His five symphonies were recorded by the Krasnoyarsk Symphony Orchestra (Russia) conducted by Andrew Wheeler and released on the Etcetera label in 2000 receiving excellent reviews in England and Australia (see Reviews). The CD was named as one of ‘The Recordings of the Year 2007’ by Music Web International editor Rob Barnett (see Reviews).
Brenton's solo piano work Torre di Forza was one of two Australian 'test' pieces commissioned for the 2004 Sydney International Piano Competition, and in 2005 ABC Classics released a CD of orchestral works performed by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ola Rudner (see Reviews). His chamber opera based on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was performed in Bonn, Germany in April 2006.
Brenton has been a member of many boards, committees and competition panels, including The Australia Council, Arts Victoria, the Australian Music Centre, Symphony Australia’s Reading Panel, the Paul Lowin Prize, The Maggs Prize, APRA Classical Music Advisory Committee, The Victorian College of the Arts Committee, Australian National Academy of Music, Australian Composers’ Orchestral Forum, National Music Camp, Chamber Made Opera et al, and adjudicator at several national music competitions and eisteddfods. In 1995 the Australian Music Centre published his book Sound Ideas (with Linda Kouvaras) that documented 95 Australian composers (see Articles - Rites of Passage).
Brenton has written 6 symphonies, concertos for tuba, piano, euphonium and saxophone, several orchestral works, a chamber opera, 4 string quartets and much chamber, choral and solo music. Over 60 compositions are available on 50 commercial CDs worldwide (see discography). In 2007 he was one of 4 musicians short-listed for the Melbourne Prize and he was appointed as a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne.
From 2008 he has been a freelance composer and in 2009 was Composer in Residence with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Recent works include a piece for 12 saxophones, Twelve, a concerto, Made In Heaven, for trumpeter James Morrison and a chamber ensemble work, Hall of Mirrors, for trombonist Brett Kelly. His sixth symphony, Tyranny of Distance, for orchestra (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Warwick Stengards), soprano soloist (Merlyn Quaife), didgeridoo (Jaida Gulpilil), MSO Chorus/Jonathan Grieves-Smith and live visuals created and performed by Tim Gruchy, was premiered at the 2009 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts.
In 2011 he received a two year Composer Fellowship from the Australia Council for the Arts that has allowed him to complete a full length version of his opera Fahrenheit 451. He also completed a brass band work, Metal on Metal for the National Australia Brass, directed by Dr David King. In 2011 Brenton was a Composer In Residence with the National Australia Brass.
In November 2013 Brenton’s string orchestra work, Never Truly Lost, commissioned by Rob and Nancy Pallin, was toured around Australia by the Australian Chamber Orchestra with Satu Vänskä as solo violinist. In May 2014 Never Truly Lost was the ABCs entry to the International Rostrum of Composers held in Finland and was selected as a ‘recommended work’ (from 50 entries from 27 national radio networks).
In 2014 Brenton was a Creative Fellow at the State Library of Victoria (working on a new musical/opera with Mike Brady). He also received the Albert H Maggs Award and composed a new work, Syzygy, for the Syzygy Ensemble that is available on their first CD, Making Signs.
In 2014/15 Brenton composed three works to commemorate the Anzac Centennial: for Canning City Band (WA), Borooondara Brass (Vic) and the Australian Chamber Choir.
In 2016 Brenton was commissioned by Warren Lesnie to compose a string quartet, Safe Haven, for his wife Marianne and performed by the Enso Quartet (New York) in May/June during a tour promoted by Music Viva
In 2017 Brenton completed new commissions for the Plexus Ensemble, This Everlasting Silence, premiered at the Recital Centre, Melbourne in November; for the HD Duo, Hammerblow, premiered on their ‘Commonwealth Tour’ in 2018. He also had the pleasure of working with comedian Simon Hall (aka Yon from Tripod) arranging the music for a 60 minute cabaret show - The Second Wedding Singer - premiered at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in June.
In 2020 his work Let There Be Light was one of four works chosen by the Tampa Bay Symphony, USA to be performed in 2021.
In August 2020 his orchestral work In The Sunshine was performed by the Helsingborgs Symfoniorkester in Helsingborg, Sweden conducted by David Björkman.
In 2021 Brenton was selected by the Australian National Academy of Music to compose a solo trombone work.