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Swann but no Flanders: this economically priced collection celebrates the unique talents of a gifted songwriter whose settings of poets from Burns to Betjeman are ripe for revival. The quartet of distinguished singers is luxury casting.
Donald Ibrahím Swann was born in 1923 in Llanelli. His father was a doctor who had grown up in Russia, returning to England after the Revolution with a beautiful Muslim wife from Azerbaijan, Naguimé, who chose her son’s middle name as a reminder of her origins. Donald’s early years were spent in Wales; the formative ones came when the family moved to Elephant and Castle in London. The household they established over his father’s surgery on the ground floor was a musical one, with Transcaucasian folk music (especially gypsy songs) sung by Naguimé, four-hand piano music played en famille, and Russian food offered to a succession of distinguished and often musical guests. From his father’s side of the family, Donald inherited a deep feeling for Russian music. An uncle, Alfred, had known Rachmaninov and written a biography of Scriabin. From his mother, Donald remembered above all inheriting the gift of ‘releasing my emotions at the piano’. When she died, in his last year at Dulwich College Prep School, it affected him deeply. He spoke little about it, but composed a lament for piano, carefully labelled Opus 1 No 1, on the day she died. ‘I never lost the feeling that playing the piano was an act of consolation’, he later reflected.
Later, at Westminster School, Donald played tennis with Peter Ustinov, beach games with Peter Brook and a Beethoven concerto (disastrously) with the school orchestra—a bruising experience that led him to realize that ‘a simple answer to all classical music is don’t play anyone else’s, do your own thing’. It was not long after this, in his last year at school, that he got together with fellow-pupil Michael Flanders to write a few funny songs.
In 1941, Swann won a place at Oxford but his career there was interrupted by the war in which he refused to fight. As a conscientious objector, he joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit; this was followed by service in Egypt, Palestine and—finally and most happily—in Greece, where he fell deeply in love with the land, its people, and their music. Returning to Oxford, he added Modern Greek to his Russian studies and started to compose more and more. A mixed bag of songs from his student days shows various influences seeping in. A setting in 1946 of Robert Burns’s A red, red rose shows an effortless gift for melody and is, in effect, a ‘composed folksong’ in the manner of Vaughan Williams’s Linden Lea. Then, in 1948, during a ‘shattering week’ in which he decided to become a song-writer for good, he penned the passionate melody of Dark rose of my heart and asked a poet he met at a party, Francis Scarfe, to write some words to fit it. The soul-seared tune soars above a piano accompaniment that pulsates with the asymmetric rhythms of Greek folk music. Another university song, I loved you once, is in the Russian romance tradition and sets words by Pushkin to a tune that Tchaikovsky might not have disowned. There emerged a tradition, followed here, of singing the song twice, first in Russian, then in English. Another student song shows Donald’s growing feeling for ‘light music’ and ability to turn his hand to a number of popular styles: The youth of the heart was the first of many songs (and a musical) he would write to words by Sydney Carter and its wistful melody deserved all the success it found when was later released as a best-selling 78-rpm record.
Oxford also brought a meeting with the poet John Betjeman—another artist whose future popularity would sometimes obscure his seriousness—and Donald celebrated their friendship with A collection of songs. The ‘flaming ropes of hair’ that mesmerized Betjeman in The licorice fields at Pontefract are evoked by a piano accompaniment that coils sensuously around a folk-like melody. It is followed by the panoramic Margate 1940, where Swann finds a new key for every verse as Betjeman looks down with an affectionate eye on a town that was fading before his eyes. In contrast, there is more than a dash of biting satire to match his self-parody in Senex; and even a quote from the Dies irae to bring out the conflict of an ageing, voyeuristic man half-glorying in lust, half-wishing to be free of it. The collection ends with A subaltern’s love song, ‘Miss J Hunter Dunn’, where the first part of the poem is read (speech and song are never far from each other in Swann) before taking wing on a magnificent tune and an accompaniment that reminds us how much the composer loved to play Rachmaninov. Swann had the urge to set this poem after falling for an English Rose of his own at a ball in Lyme Regis, and has no trouble capturing in music all the erotic tenderness and tremulousness of Betjeman’s outsider at a Surrey tennis party.
Perhaps more might have followed in this vein, but the ‘Hat’ years were all-consuming. Donald had come across Michael Flanders again by chance in Oxford during 1948. ‘Do you remember the shows we did together at school?’ he asked. ‘I’m now looking for a career. I’ve no idea what to do but do you think you could write a few words if I wrote a few tunes …?’ The trickle of songs that had started in their schooldays began to flow—bringing success, which Donald enjoyed, along with long tours and wealth, about which he was ambivalent. The pressures contributed to the end of his first marriage and were matched by a frustration at having no time to devote to more serious music. ‘When will I change key?’ he wrote on one occasion, noting that the ‘nice little melodies’ of the Flanders and Swann numbers were doing nothing for his ‘new emotions’.
During the last years of the ‘Hat’ shows, Swann was already immersing himself in new projects. There was an opera, Perelandra, based on C S Lewis’s fictional vision of a paradise lost. He was equally gripped by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and took several of the ‘hobbit’ lyrics with him on the final world tour with Flanders, setting several to music and publishing them, complete with calligraphy and Elvish runes, as The road goes ever on. They delighted the great Professor and initiated a friendship. But the gem of Swann’s Tolkien settings—and the one closest to the composer’s heart—came from the lyric Bilbo’s last song, written by Tolkien as a parting gift to his loyal secretary, Joy Hill. She handed it to Swann at Tolkien’s funeral, perhaps realizing what he might make of it. An imaginary epilogue to The Lord of the Rings, it sees Bilbo Baggins (perhaps also Tolkien) foretelling his own death and passing to the land of the Elves. Donald set it to a soaring melody for duetting voices that was based on a song from the Isle of Man. But he seems, as so often, to have had other islands in mind too: the accompaniment is full of the sounds of Greece, especially his favourite and much-employed effect of bouzouki-like tremolandi in the piano.
Post-‘Hat’, Swann spoke of a ‘fissiparous phase’ where he explored a multitude of collaborations, songs, stage works, religious pieces and works for children. The Requiem for the living is perhaps the best of them—certainly Swann thought so, and was disappointed that it never quite found the recognition he had hoped for. His spiritual life found expression in an extraordinary book (the ‘posthumous adventure’ Swann’s Way Out) and consolation in increasingly frequent Quaker retreats. There were episodic performing partnerships, including one with the Cretan soprano Lilli Malandraki and another with John Amis, a childhood friend from Dulwich School, now well known as a singer, writer and entertainer. We’ll go no more a-roving was written for him to sing and has echoes of their shared childhood enthusiasm for rhythmically complex songs with ‘flashy, splashy introductions’. Later, a team of singers was brought together to explore the Swann songbook in what he called ‘an outburst of lyrical touring’. They had plenty to choose from. Donald’s catalogue was well on the way to reaching its final total of over six hundred songs. The great English poets, including Shakespeare (It was a lover, and his lass) and Milton (Arcades), are well represented within it, but European writers like Froissart (Marguerite), Ronsard (See, dearest, how the rose), Pushkin (She is all harmony, all wonder)—all in English-language adaptations by another friend from his Oxford days, David Marsh—, Heine (Oh, why are the roses so pale?), Hesse (In the mist) and Rilke (Longing) were also translated and lent melodies from the seemingly inexhaustible Swann storehouse. Among modern poets, Swann’s sympathy for the stances taken by Alun Lewis in Raiders’ dawn and the Soviet dissident Irina Ratushinskaya in Some people’s dreams is obvious. Musically, there is almost as much variety, but although Swann took an interest in and sometimes admired the experiments of Europe’s avant garde composers, there was never much chance that he would follow them. He did, however, make several excursions into jazz, which he loved for its vitality and the deep emotions of the blues, although he found it difficult to reconcile a jazz groove with his ‘serpentine’ way of playing, where, as he said, ‘every bar is a little bit different and folds its way around the lyric’. A little triptych, Old songs of lost love, links together three Hermann Hesse poems, heard here in English translations by Swann’s friend and collaborator Leon Berger. Their melodies have more than a touch of Hollywood about them and were designed so they could be played both ‘straight’ and as jazz numbers. So, too, was a haunting and more obviously jazz-influenced setting of Robert Frost’s Stopping by woods.
In later life, Swann developed a deep love for the Victorian poets that was shared by Alison Smith, an art historian who would become his second wife. Together they published a beautifully illustrated collection called The Poetic Image in 1991. The songs found within it range from simple, heartfelt settings of Rossetti’s When I am dead, my dearest and A better resurrection to the decadent, off-key dance music of Wilde’s The harlot’s house and a visionary setting of John Clare’s An invite to eternity. There is also music to evoke Thomas Hardy’s nostalgia in Thoughts of Phena and longing for a time when ‘all went well’ in Before life and after, while four cantos from Tennyson’s In memoriam inspire effects as different as a surreal, slow-motion glissando to depict decaying flies in Be near me when my light is low, a hymn-like accompaniment for The wish, the ineffably lonely ending for unaccompanied voice of Oh yet we trust that somehow good and the watery music that ebbs and flows in There rolls the deep.
Shortly after The Poetic Image appeared, Swann was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live. He reacted with a determination to keep performing and composing—and the three months became two highly creative years, during which he turned more and more to mystic poets like William Blake, Emily Dickinson and Edna St Vincent Millay. He did so with little solemnity. Donald instinctively and cheerfully related to Blake as ‘another Londoner doing his own thing’ and surviving tape recordings of him performing his Six songs to poems by William Blake give a sense of his familiar and unpretentious way with the poems, which are introduced like old friends and delivered in his characteristically flexible, word-led and half-sung style. Although his musical language remained essentially what it always had been—tonal, with exotic elements—there is a sense here that Blake has led Swann onto more adventurous ground, with stark chords to introduce the kill-joy priests in The Garden of Love, weary glissandi in Ah! Sun-flower! and an impressionistic haze that finally and magically clears in The Angel. The insistent ‘wrong’ notes to depict the ‘invisible worm’ in The sick Rose (later recurring with the lightest of touches to evoke hapless insect life in The Fly) seem to have surprised the composer as much as anyone else. ‘My dear chap’, he exclaimed on the telephone to John Amis, ‘I think I’ve written just written a dissonance!’
Shortly after came Five colourisations of Emily Dickinson. Their title encapsulates Swann’s approach to song composition, in which the words always lead the music, not the other way around. ‘It is essentially to do with enhancing meaning through music’, he once said, and his favoured method of composition was to stand a lyric on his piano for days and ‘let the poet’s intensity come out’. Farewell opens with a torrent of semiquavers (of the sort that Donald could always dispatch with ease—he was a much better pianist than was suggested by his persona in the ‘Hat’ shows) which drive the song along to its conclusion. In contrast, the piano hardly features at all in I died for Beauty, just ghosting the occasional fragment of the singer’s melody. The remaining ‘colourisations’ have similarly effective contrasts: the heavy, numb tread of I felt a Funeral, in my Brain offset by the airy texture of Dying, where a single piano line buzzes around the singer’s melody before giving way (one last time) to the sounds of Swann’s beloved bouzoukis. They underpin the noble, hymn-like melody of I had no time to Hate, a poem that echoes Swann’s own character and attitudes, as recalled by all who knew him. A pacifist, he had few, if any, enemies and a firm belief in the ‘little man’. His own ‘little toil of love’ brought him many friends—it was said that no one had ever been known not to like him—as well as happiness with Alison Smith, whom he married during his final months in a hospice. His friend John Warrack is not the only one to refer to ‘a touch of saintliness’ in his character; and for John Amis ‘he seemed to inspire love because love was what he was all about’.
In his final year he returned to Greece—‘the elixir of life for me’—in a wheelchair and visited the lonely island of Kasos, which he had come to see as his spiritual home. He spoke of a vision of Charon, King of the Underworld, and imagined squaring up to him with a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay, Thou famished grave, I will not fill thee yet, later setting it to defiant music. Its line ‘I have heroes to beget Before I die’ might have been his own, as he determinedly tried to ‘turn a sick year into a unity’ by composing right up until his final days in hospital. Another Millay setting, And must I then, indeed, Pain, live with you, covers similarly personal ground, with a magical key change at the words ‘So be it, then’ and an anguished climax at ‘robbing my nights of rest’. A final song, He wishes for the cloths of heaven, was composed in 1994 when Swann was very close to death. It opens high in the piano and uncertain of key, gradually descending to the slow-breathing chords in the bass with which the song ends. ‘And so as you plummet you are heading for Everest’, Swann had once written in a poem, Metaphysical Jigsaw, and it is possible to hear in his final song an almost physical representation of the idea of ‘falling upward’ that Swann explored throughout his life in the many religious disciplines he tried on for size, of which Quakerism finally proved the best fit.
A sketch of Donald Swann’s life must piece together a very English humour and self-deprecating charm, his deep roots in Russia and the East, a lifelong search for meaning and solace in religion, a love of language, a gift for melody and the fertile territory that lies—for those who will look—between so-called ‘serious’ and ‘light’ music. Never far below the surface are the warm personal relationships that inspired so much of his work. Best remembered of all is the partnership with Michael Flanders, whose wit and word-play provided a perfect counterpoint to Swann’s lyrical impulse. Creations like Have some Madeira m’dear, Misalliance, Slow Train, The Gasman Cometh, A Transport of Delight and a song-bestiary that features hippopotami, armadillos, warthogs, gnus and rhinos will never be forgotten. But neither should the songs that Donald Swann composed in his so-called ‘Lieder style’. They leave a vivid picture of a man who, like all true originals, knew only how to be himself. John Amis was surely right to claim that his old school friend should be remembered, at the very least, as ‘one of our better song writers’.
Christopher Glynn ï¿½ 2017