The following brief biography is designed to guide you through Donald Swann's catalogue of recordings and publications with a few illustrative links. It will be updated regularly. For fuller details of Donald's life see his autobiography Swann's Way: A Life in Song (now out of print)
Early Years (1923-1941)
Donald Swann will forever be popularly known as the musical half of the comic song writing duo Flanders & Swann; but the quintessential Englishness of that satiric output belies his exotic roots – Donald's middle name, Ibrahím, is a clue.
Donald was born in Llanelli on 30 Sept 1923 into a family of amateur musicians, both parents refugees from the Russian Revolution. His upbringing was one of Russian folk song and four-hand piano reductions of the Russian and European Romantics.
He remained largely self-taught in spite of being an external student at the RCM while still at Westminster School. A contemporary, Michael Flanders, then a budding schoolboy actor, penned a school revue GO TO IT! to which Swann contributed music, enjoying a brief run at the Everyman Theatre, Hampstead during the Blitz.
In 1941 Donald was awarded an exhibition to Christ Church, Oxford, to read modern languages but, after a year, the war intervened. As a convinced pacifist with a life-long quest of religious faith and doubt, he switched from his earlier Anglicanism and found a spiritual home under the tolerant umbrella of the Quakers. Donald registered as a conscientious objector and served with the FAU (Friends' Ambulance Unit) in Egypt, Palestine and, more importantly, in Greece whose music and culture became a life-long passion and influence.
On his return to Oxford Donald switched his studies to Russian and Modern Greek. As a student he wrote serious settings of poets such as Pushkin, Froissart and Ronsard (primarily love songs). A number of these early compositions can be found in two recent volumes of The Songs Of Donald Swann. Donald's comic sense came to the fore in his versions of 'Senex' and 'Joan Hunter Dunn' by John Betjeman (A Collection of Songs), which were aired, in the undergraduate revues he was extemporizing for Sandy Wilson. A meeting with Michael Flanders, now wheelchair-bound with polio and working in radio, led to a continuation of their schoolboy writing partnership.
The first song Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote, 'In the D'Oyly Cart', was accepted by the impresario Laurier Lister for inclusion in his intimate revue ORANGES AND LEMONS (1948). And for the next eight years they contributed witty and topical songs to Lister's revues including PENNY PLAIN (1951), AIRS ON A SHOESTRING (1953), PAY THE PIPER (1954), and FRESH AIRS (1956)
Lister's stable of performers included Max Adrian, Charlotte Mitchell, Elisabeth Welch and Ian Wallace who had such a success singing 'The Hippopotamus' ("Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud") that he was provided with a whole bestiary of anthropomorphic animal songs including 'The Warthog' and 'The Elephant'. For soprano Rose Hill they wrote 'A Word on My Ear', a comic song about a tone-deaf singer. Joyce Grenfell (with whom Donald wrote 'Joyful Noise') appeared in those early revues before touring her own show JOYCE GRENFELL REQUESTS THE PLEASURE where she sang Flanders & Swann's 'The Song of the Weather'.
For H.M.Tennant management Donald and Michael contributed songs to the LYRIC REVUE (1951) and the GLOBE REVUE (1952) – the latter featuring 'The Youth of the Heart' with lyrics by Sydney Carter, a wartime friend, who would remain one of Donald's continuing collaborators.
Early Musicals (1948-1956)
Donald's first musical, THE BRIGHT ARCADE, a Victorian story written with actor-writer Maurice Browning, found enthusiasts but no backers – however it re-emerged, 25 years later, in a televised version as THE GREAT GLASS HIVE. Then, with Sydney Carter, Donald wrote LUCY AND THE HUNTER, a children's dream-musical, which found a showing at a fringe venue. Donald's next piece WILD THYME achieved a West End run of only 52 performances in the hot summer of 1955, but nevertheless obtained a cult following, some fans returning dozens of time. At this time Donald's name was better known to the radio public for his collaborations on the Third Programme with Henry Reed, providing spoof atonal music for the fictitious composeress Hilda Tablet. He was also beginning to be associated with a generation of musical humorists led by the irrepressible Gerard Hoffnung for whom he also composed a serious work, TWO MOODS FOR TUBA, which has also achieved its third commercial recording on the CD KELLY THOMAS APPETIZERS.
The Hat Years: Flanders & Swann (1956-1967)
Donald Swann and Michael Flanders had been performing their own songs at cast read-throughs and private parties for some years often, as they would say "at the drop of a hat"; they gradually honed their material as a double-act. Donald's prep-school chum, John Amis, invited them to make a couple of appearances at the Summer School of Music he ran at Dartington (where Donald met his first wife, Janet). Encouraged by that success Flanders and Swann hired, as an experiment, a small 150-seater theatre, the New Lindsey in Notting Hill, for a three-week run. Their show, titled AT THE DROP OF A HAT, opened on 31st December 1956 and was an overnight success. They quickly acquired an agent and transferred to the Fortune Theatre where they were the toast of the West End and ran for nearly two and half years. An LP of highlights was issued, as well as several EPs, which found their way across the Atlantic and a fan base quickly grew in America. On 8th Oct 1959 they opened on Broadway with equal success and subsequently toured the US, Canada, the UK provinces and Switzerland.
A sequel, AT THE DROP OF ANOTHER HAT, opened at Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London October 1963 for a long run before reverting to its previous title for performances in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. There followed yet another tour of the UK, to London again at the Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud) and, in 1966, a return to the US and Toronto and finishing up on back on Broadway at the Booth Theatre. The last HAT was dropped on 9th April 1967. Ten days later, they moved into a studio and recorded the show for TV. In 11 years Flanders & Swann had clocked up nearly 2,000 performances. The two remained friends, collaborating occasionally, until Michael Flanders' death in 1975. Claudia Flanders, his widow, and Donald embarked on a long-awaited publication of THE SONGS OF MICHAEL FLANDERS & DONALD SWANN and commercial releases include a 3 CD set THE COMPLETE FLANDERS & SWANN (1991) and recently a 4 CD set HAT-TRICK: FLANDERS & SWANN COLLECTOR'S EDITION (2007). There are also two video releases, THE ONLY FLANDERS & SWANN VIDEO (PMI) in the UK and FLANDERS & SWANN (PBS) in the US.
The Hat Years: Other Music (1956-1967)
In spite of gruelling touring schedules Donald nevertheless managed find time write a modern setting of the TE DEUM (FESTIVAL MATINS) ; a three act opera PERELANDRA adapted from the C.S.Lewis novel by his old Oxford friend David Marsh; a one act operetta THE MAN WITH A 1,000 FACES with a libretto by 'angry young man' Colin Wilson and a set of musical melodramas with Sebastian Shaw entitled LONDON SKETCHES. To the delight of Tolkien fans everywhere, Donald set to music lyrics derived from the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy; THE ROAD GOES EVER ON song-cycle met with the approval and admiration of the author himself.
During the last American HAT tour, Donald began to feel that other aspects of his music were being neglected. Some of these thoughts he expressed in his first book of memoirs THE SPACE BETWEEN THE BARS.
After The Hats (1967-1980)
Over the next few years Donald compiled and performed hundreds of concerts; sometimes solo or often with different performers picked to explore the variety of his output. SET BY SWANN anthologized his love songs and used classical singers like Marion Studholme, Andrew Downie and occasionally Ian Wallace. It also gave him the opportunity to publish some of his most Russianate and passionate love songs: THREE SONGS SET BY SWANN. AN EVENING IN CRETE, with soprano Lilli Malandraki, combined his Greek-inspired compositions with traditional Hellenic music. SOUNDINGS BY SWANN saw actor Barry Wilsher and Donald link up with a local children's choirs and an organist in churches and cathedrals all over the country. With Barry as narrator Donald also gave many performances of his children's staged drama THIS IS THE STORY OF BONTZYE SHWEIG written with Leslie Paul. EXPLORATIONS ONE, with Sydney Carter, concentrated on words and music in a folk idiom. The show was later expanded, with the addition of Jeremy Taylor, into AN EVENING WITH CARTER, TAYLOR & SWANN which took folk music into mainstream theatres.
For BETWEEN THE BARS Donald gathered together a versatile group of performers who were at home in all his musical styles; the original line-up was Catherine Martin, Heather Kay, Ginny Broadbent, Brian Kay and Alistair Thompson. Brian and Alistair left to join the King's Singers and were successfully replaced by Richard Day-Lewis, Roger Cleverdon. The Swann Singers were to perform most of Donald's major vocal writing for the rest of his life; including his REQUIEM FOR THE LIVING (written with C. Day Lewis), his Jewish cantata THE FIVE SCROLLS (with Rabbi Albert Friedlander) and SOLILOQUY FOR AUTUMN – a meditative anthology. They also recorded a version of his book of carols for all the year round THE ROPE OF LOVE. Donald and the Swann Singers toured America and the Middle East, taking their peace programme A CRACK IN TIME to troubled world spots including Belfast in 1973. The following year Donald performed his solo show of peace and protest songs in South Africa where even the Flanders and Swann material took on political overtones. Donald charted his extremes of moods and emotional turmoil in a curious 'posthumous adventure' SWANN'S WAY OUT (1975), often written in the third person. Donald's Russian-style music gained expression through a series of concerts with percussionist Heather Corbett whose skill on the cimbalom in particular gave just the right eastern feel to A GLANCING BLOW. Donald's last major composition of the 1970s was an agit-prop musical for children THE YEAST FACTORY written with Alec Davison and staged at the Cockpit Theatre in 1979 with a young Tim Roth in the cast.
The 1980s (1980-1987)
In 1979 Donald teamed up with the Reverend Frank Topping, a radio producer and raconteur. The result was SWANN WITH TOPPING – a two-man revue in a religious vein. They played several provincial venues, ending up at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End in October 1980 for a short run.
Although Donald was primarily a vocal writer (there are nearly 2,000 songs listed in his archives), his occasional essay in instrumental music displays the same, instantly recognizable, melodic gifts. For Carl Dolmetsch he wrote a concerto for recorder (or flute) and piano in 1981: RHAPSODY FROM WITHIN. The 1994 recording by Piers Adams on the CD SUN & SHADE has made this a very popular work among music students.
Donald's most prolific collaborator for the last twenty-five years of his life has been Arthur Scholey with whom he wrote a significant body of songs and stage works. For children: two shows based on the lives of saints (THE SONG OF CAEDMON and BRENDAN AHOY!), BABOUSHKA, a Russian Christmas folk story, and WACKY & HIS FUDDLEJIG in which one of Santa's workers refuses to make military toys. For adults they wrote CANDLETREE a Christmas opera, and THE VISITORS a contemporary retelling of a Tolstoy short story. Donald has published, with Arthur Scholey, a volume of children's songs SINGALIVE! – 12 SONGS & A CAKEWALK.
For many years Donald spent long retreats with the Quaker community at Pendle Hill, Philadelphia – a place for study and meditation where he also lectured and composed. In a similar environment in Oberlin, Ohio he conceived the musical MAMAHUHU. In 1986 Donald moved into a new musical field and collaborated with Jazz trumpeter Digby Fairweather and singer Liz Lincoln in several very popular SWANN IN JAZZ shows. One of these concerts from 1986 was recorded and Donald oversaw its remaster and transfer onto CD along with some additional tracks in the same idiom.
The Last Years (1987 -1994)
Donald developed a deep love for Victorian poets in his last years and, with a new musical voice, began to set the poems of Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, John Clare and Oscar Wilde which he performed with soprano Lucinda Broadbridge. He also teamed up with art historian Alison Smith, who was to become his second wife, to produce a illustrated volume of these songs THE POETIC IMAGE. He embarked on a massive retrospective recording – three hours of his solo material on three cassettes – the ALPHABETAPHON. At a time of great change and reflection his autobiography was commissioned and SWANN'S WAY, written with Lyn Smith, appeared in 1991. Shortly after publication Donald was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live. The three months turned into two years and Donald celebrated his exit in a very public way. He rallied enough to commit himself to new concert tours and recordings and, above all, new compositions. He set to music song-cycles by William Blake, Edna St Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson, which are some of his finest works – these have now been published as LAST SONGS. His final project was to take him back to his first love – a theatrical presentation of his Greek music, produced by the Cherub Theatre Company, and entitled SWANN AMONG THE SIRENS.
Donald was never to see it for he died at Trinity Hospice in South London on 23rd March 1994. However the show was mounted at the Tricycle Theatre in his honour six months later. The cast, under the musical director and arranger John Jansson, recorded the music under the title THE ISLES OF GREECE.