Today is the birthday (1923) of Donald Ibrahím Swann a musician, singer and entertainer who is best remembered as one half of Flanders and Swann. His middle name hints at his unusual background. Swann was born in Llanelli in Wales. His father, Herbert Alfredovich Swann, was a Russian doctor of English descent, from the expatriate community that started out as the Muscovy Company. His mother, Naguimé Sultán Swann (born Piszóva), was a Turkmen-Russian nurse from Ashgabat, now part of Turkmenistan. They were refugees from the Russian Revolution. Swann’s great-grandfather, Alfred Trout Swan, a draper from Lincolnshire, emigrated to Russia in 1840 and married the daughter of the horologer to the Tsars. Some time later the family added a second ‘n’ to their surname. His uncle Alfred wrote the first biography of Alexander Scriabin in English.
The family moved to London, where Swann attended Dulwich College Preparatory School and Westminster School. It was at the latter that he first met Michael Flanders, a fellow pupil. In July and August 1940 they staged a revue called Go To It. The pair then went their separate ways during World War II, but were later to establish a musical partnership writing songs and light opera, Flanders providing the words and Swann composing the music.
In 1941 Swann was awarded an exhibition to Christ Church, Oxford, to read modern languages. In 1942 he registered as a conscientious objector and served with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (a Quaker relief organization) in Egypt, Palestine and Greece. After the war, Swann returned to Oxford to read Russian and Modern Greek.
When by chance Swann and Flanders met again in 1948 it led to the start of their professional partnership. They began writing songs and light opera, Swann writing the music and Flanders writing the words. Their songs were performed by artists such as Ian Wallace and Joyce Grenfell. They subsequently wrote two two-man revues, At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat, which they performed all over the world until their partnership ended in 1967.
At the same time, Swann was maintaining a prolific musical output, writing the music for several operas and operettas, including a full-length version of C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, and a setting of J. R. R. Tolkien’s poems from The Lord of the Rings to music in The Road Goes Ever On collection. In 1953–59 Swann provided music for seven plays by Henry Reed on the BBC Third Programme, generally known as the Hilda Tablet plays for one of the fictional characters, a lady composer of avant-garde “musique concrete”. Besides incidental music, Swann composed for this character an opera, “Emily Butter” and several other complete works. A lifelong friendship with Sydney Carter resulted in scores of songs, the best known being “The Youth of the Heart” which reappeared in At the Drop of A Hat, and a musical Lucy & the Hunter. After his partnership with Flanders ended, Swann continued to give solo concerts and to write for other singers. He also formed the Swann Singers and toured with them in the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s he continued performing in various combinations with singers and colleagues and as a solo artist. In the later years of his life he ‘discovered’ Victorian poetry and composed some of his most profound and moving music to the words of William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Oscar Wilde and others. He wrote a number of hymn tunes which appear in modern standard hymn books. It is estimated that Swann wrote or set to music nearly 2,000 songs during his career.
Swann died in London on 24th March 1994. His lifelong friend, John Amis, wrote in his obituary:
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?
I was a great fan of Flanders and Swann in the 1960s. I suppose they have not worn well with age, but their songs still amuse me. In my youth I was known to sing “The Gas Man Cometh” and not terribly long ago I gave a public performance of “The Hippopotamus Song.” Videos of live performances are rare, sad to say. Here is “Song of Patriotic Prejudice.” It does make me cringe a bit these days with its stereotypes and lack of political correctness, but it also shows their innocence and joviality:
In the spirit of Swann’s lighthearted joviality I suggest you do something creative with thyme today in honor of one of Swann’s earliest musical endeavors, Wild Thyme, which has a long run in London in the 1950s. I use thyme in my beef and chicken stews to good effect, and very often in sauce for roast meat. I am sure you can be more creative than me.