During the 1930s, Khrennikov was already being hailed as a leading official Soviet composer. In 1948, Andrei Zhdanov, the leader of the anti-formalism campaign, nominated Khrennikov as Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers. He held this influential post until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
He learned guitar and mandolin from members of his family and sang in a local choir in Yelets. There he also played in a local orchestra and learned the piano. As a teenager he moved to Moscow. From 1929 to 1932, he studied composition at the Gnessin State Musical College under Mikhail Gnessin and Yefraim Gelman. From 1932 to 1936, he attended the Moscow Conservatory. There he studied composition under Vissarion Shebalin and piano under Heinrich Neuhaus. As a student, he wrote and played his Piano Concerto No. 1, and his graduation piece was the Symphony No. 1. His first symphony was conducted by Leopold Stokowski. He became popular with the series of songs and serenades that he composed for the 1936 production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow.
By the 1930s, Khrennikov was already treated as a leading official Soviet composer. Typical was his speech during a discussion in February 1936 concerning Pravda articles "Chaos instead of music" and "Ballet falseness":
The resolution on 23rd April 1932 appealed to the consciousness of the Soviet artist. Soviet artists had not withstood scrutiny. After 23rd April, youth was inspired to study. The problem was, we had to master the skills and techniques of composition. We developed an enthusiasm for modern western composers. The names of Hindemith and Krenek came to be symbols of advanced modern artists. After the enthusiasm for western tendencies came an attraction to simplicity, influenced by composing for the theatre, where simple, expressive music was required. We grew, our consciousness also grew, as well as the aspiration to be genuine Soviet composers, representatives of our epoch. Compositions by Hindemith satisfied us no more. Soon after that Prokofiev arrived, declaring Soviet music to be provincial and naming Shostakovich as the most up-to-date composer. Young composers were confused: on the one hand, they wanted to create simpler music that would be easier for the masses to understand; on the other hand, they were confronted with the statements of such musical authorities as Prokofiev. Critics wrote laudatory odes to Shostakovich. How did young composers react to Lady Macbeth ? This opera contains several large melodic fragments which opened some creative perspectives to us. But the entre‘actes and other things aroused complete hostility.