Obituary: Donald Swann
Friday 25 March 1994
DONALD SWANN, composer of Youth of the Heart, a bestiary of ditties about armadilloes, gnus, rhinos and hippos as well as songs about gasmen, London buses, even honeysuckle and bindweed, will no longer be seen, bespectacled and touchingly manic, at the keyboard as he was before, after and during the world-wide fame of the various Drop of a Hat revues, with his bearded, wheelchair partner Michael Flanders.
Swann was born in 1923 at Llanelli in Wales, of a father who spoke English always with a strong Russian accent and a mother who came from Transcaspia, speaking very little English at all. Donald's great- grandfather was a draper rejoicing in the name of Alfred Trout Swan (the second 'n' comes and goes in the family like a Cheshire cat). He left Lincolnshire to settle in St Petersburg in 1840 and it was not until the Revolution that Donald's father decided to return to the land of his ancestors. Herbert was a doctor who had married a Muslim nurse called Naguime and brought her to England; he qualified again in the UK and by the time Donald's sister Marion was two Herbert was a glorified locum tenens in Wales.
When Donald was three Herbert Swann bought a practice in the Walworth Road, Elephant and Castle, and there the two children grew up, Donald at first going to Dulwich College Preparatory School and then to Westminster School as a King's Scholar. The family was hard up and it was some time before a good upright piano was installed above the surgery at No 92. Herbert and his brothers were all keen one-piano-four-hands duettists (a Russian speciality) and they had a large collection of the classics and the Russian repertoire which Donald and his family used to play; and myself, too, for I had become friends with Donald at the Prep during our last year there, 1935.
By this time Naguime had died and English became the language of the household. Although Donald never spoke to me about his mother, I think he felt her loss very deeply; his sister was at school, his father was busy with his patients, and Ada, the wall-eyed daily, was handy with the macaroni but not motherly.
Donald Swann was assiduous in the classroom but wild in the playground, pitting himself in the 'break' against a line of boys before collapsing into protracted fits of giggling. His table manners were grotesquely awful. At the annual hobbies exhibition he showed manuscripts of little piano pieces penned in his spidery, almost unreadable writing - alas, it got worse over the years. A letter from him took longer to read than it took him to write.
At this time Swann's musical interests were entirely classical with strong leanings towards Rachmaninov - he could give a nifty reading of the fearsome E flat minor Etude Tableau, opus 39, also of pieces by Scriabin (Donald's uncle Alfred had written the first biography of this composer in the English language) and Nicolai Medtner (with whom the family was on visiting terms in his Golders Green exile).
Swann would occasionally regale me with details of life at Westminster: how the Scholars had been punished because at a rehearsal for the Coronation they had spoonerised the cry of 'Vivat Regina'; of playing tennis with a certain Ustinov; of a politically minded Tony Benn already distributing socialist leaflets; of the young Von Ribbentrop putting the weight; of beach games with Peter Brook, and of his lessons as an external student at the Royal College of Music, studying piano with Angus Morrison and composition with Hugo Anson. During his later years at school he had come into contact with a boy 18 months his senior, a budding actor called Michael Flanders. After the Second World War started the boys were evacuated first to Lancing, in Sussex, and then to Exeter University, where Michael and Donald wrote a few funny songs together. The war took over before long.
After a year at Oxford Swann had a tribunal, where he was registered as a conscientious objector; he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) and slogged away with the Quakers, whose thinking he found congenial even though his duties included operating a mortuary trolley, digging latrines, cleaning out operating theatres and even shaving the pubic hairs of high-ranking military personnel.
Then came service in Egypt, Palestine and Greece. Swann fell in love with Greece, the people, the language and, above all, the music, which entered his soul and left there for the rest of his life those quirky rhythms and exotic turns of decoration and melody. One day, near the Albanian border, he flung his arms wide 'embracing the countryside around me which had been home to so many different races - Albanians, Greeks, Turks, Bulgars, Romanians, Vlachs - and exclaimed: 'What a beautiful thing it would be if this were all one country] Surely we are all one]' ' His remarks were taken down by a Greek soldier, he was branded as a corrupting influence and relieved of his post. He came home in 1946.
Back at Oxford Swann added modern Greek to his Russian studies. Musically he had gone 'light' by now. He still listened, nostalgically perhaps, to pieces like Rachmaninov's Third Symphony, but a disastrous school performance of a Beethoven concerto, the early numbers with Flanders, and revues in the FAU had shown him the way his life was to go. 'Dreaming spires, my foot] I played the piano for Sandy Wilson's revues.' But for his songs he needed a writer, and fate saw to it that he met Michael Flanders again, the budding young actor now crippled by polio, stuck in a chair for life, denied his livelihood and even refused re-entry into his old college.
At this stage both of them had several small irons in the fire; Flanders was working in radio, Swann was discovering and setting Betjeman and dishing up some numbers inspired by Greece. The impresario Laurier Lister accepted some of these for his revue Oranges and Lemons. This type of sophisticated revue was popular at the time and others followed: Penny Plain and The Lyric Revue in 1951 (the latter included one of Swann's best-known songs 'The Youth of the Heart', lyric by Sydney Carter), Airs on a Shoestring, Pay the Piper and Fresh Airs (1956). The stars of these shows were the likes of Joyce Grenfell (some of whose lyrics Swann set), Max Adrian, Elizabeth Welch and Ian Wallace. Wallace had such a success with Flanders and Swann's 'The Hippopotamus' ('Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud . . .') that a bestiary evolved around him and his fruity bass-baritone voice: 'Elephant', 'Warthog', 'Whale' and 'Rhinoceros'. Recordings, song-publishing and performing rights began to provide a living.
Up to this point the general public heard only others performing the Flanders-Swann material; but in private the pair had built up a performing technique, either demonstrating to the stage performers or doing turns at parties. Hitting the West End gave Swann ideas of expansion: 'I was going to write the next Oklahoma.' Maybe because Flanders had no taste for writing musicals, this never happened. But Swann tried, with various other writers.
The centenary of the 1851 Exhibition gave birth to The Bright Arcade, but no backers were found for this delightful and ambitious score that included a massive multi-faceted aria sung by Jennifer Vyvyan at parties to great effect. 'Angels' were found, in the shape and bank balance of Joyce and Reggie Grenfell no less, for a fantasy called Wild Thyme, but it came and went during a summer heatwave in 1955. Similarly, a charming dream-piece written with Sydney Carter called Lucy and the Hunter also bit the dust. A romance that lasted longer than either was licensed in 1955, during the run of Thyme, when Swann married one of his favourite English roses, Janet Oxborrow, whom he had met at the Dartington Music Summer Schools.
Swann came to help me run the Dartington summer sessions and one year Flanders came too and they performed a little cabaret one night to their largest audience yet. Their rapturous reception, plus the loan of our mailing list, led the pair to chance their arm at a little theatre in Notting Hill Gate, west London. They called their 'after-dinner farrago' At the Drop of a Hat. More rapture; and full houses.
From the New Lindsey the show moved into the Fortune Theatre in the West End and stayed there for two years and a bit. The Royal Family came en masse, the Cabinet portfolio by portfolio; the pair were applauded, recorded and, eventually, transferred to New York, where the show took so well that the years lengthened and the tours spread throughout the United States and Canada. At the Drop of Another Hat was equally popular and long-running at the Haymarket in London, in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, London again and the US again. The last Hat was dropped in New York on New Year's Day 1967, having begun to drop on the same day of 1956.
Since 1991, anybody too young to have enjoyed the show has had a chance to catch up with the experience, since the Hats are available on three CDs and a video. Flanders resisted television until the show's very last night. The video was lost until recently, but one can now see as well as hear replays of this enchanting show. What made that enchantment? To talk about good lyrics and tunes, wit and imagination is to scratch the surface. Flanders was one of the great lyric writers of the century, Swann a genius of a tune-smith with the rare gift of writing memorable, warm melodies arranged with elegance and consummate craftsmanship. There is no suspicion of cliche except in conscious parody. Nothing in Swann is contrived; the music flows naturally, spontaneously.
After much deliberation, Swann broke up the partnership. Long stays on long tours did not suit him or his way of life, and he felt that there were other things he wanted to write. Post-Hat he never enjoyed the same success but he composed a lot of music and performed it, alone or with partners, sometimes with a religious group, sometimes secular. He enjoyed performing and audiences. He turned to opera with Perelandra (CS Lewis), The Visitors (Tolstoy) and The Man With a Thousand Faces (Colin Wilson); there is a 'Te Deum' and a 'Requiem for the Living'; for the old Third Programme he had collaborated with Henry Reed in some delightful features about Hilda Tablet, a butch atonal composer. Except for the last named there is nothing in the music that would have frightened Mendelssohn or Sullivan; the Russian heritage is there but discernible more in the cut of the melodies than in the harmony. That is, until the last five years or so. I remember him ringing me up one day to say: 'My dear chap, I've written some dissonances, may I come round and play some new settings of Clare and Blake?'
Sometimes I couldn't help reflecting that Swann's passionate and expert piano-playing - what a tenor thumb he had - seemed an integral part, not to mention his clear and telling non-singing voice, of the success of these non-Flanders compositions. Scoring was not one of his gifts and too often, it seemed to me, dramatic situations relied on pianistic tremolando effects (what Grainger called 'woggle-notes'). But there is much to explore and once the so-called 'classical' performers dare to sing Swann's music we shall see that he was a great deal more than 'the chap at the piano' in Drop of a Hat that Flanders, some of us felt, somewhat denigrated; although it must be admitted that Swann went along with this, giving the impression of a manic curate.
I have never met anybody who knew Donald Swann who did not like him; his friends positively adored him. And he seemed to inspire love because love was what he was about; it came out in his life and his music. Like any (other) saint he could mildly infuriate from time to time with his absent-mindedness and with his seeming inability to see things, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. But one came to realise that these minor failings came through his single- mindedness or loyalty or the depressions that he suffered from. So were they failings?
By the time that his daughters Rachel and Natasha were grown- ups he and his wife separated. Latterly he found deep happiness with Alison Smith, an art historian, who had beautifully illustrated his autobiography Swann's Way (1991), and it was a fearful blow to them that cancer interrupted their lives and put an end to one of the great melodists of our time. They were married at St Thomas's Hospital in August last year.
Fortunately Swann latterly recorded nearly a hundred of his songs at home on his own Bluthner. Included are religious songs like the touching setting of Quoist's 'Lord, Why did you tell me to love all men, my brothers?'; settings of Tennyson, Hesse and Rossetti; a Tchaikovsky-like winner called 'Long Lonely Year' and 'Hat'; favourites like the tender 'Armadillo' and 'The Honeysuckle and the Bindweed (Misalliance)', 'Gnu' and many others, including some of the Tolkien settings.
Swann singled out 'Bilbo's Last Song' as one of his own favourites:
Day is ended, dim my eyes, but journey long before me lies . . .
Shadows long before me lie, beneath the ever-bending sky,
But islands lie behind the sun that I shall raise ere all is done;
Lands there are to west of West, where night is quiet and sleep is rest.
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