Christopher Glynn explores the serious side of a composer more widely known for his light and comic touch
I’ve always loved the songs of Flanders and Swann - something about the way they weave word play and lyricism with a wit that is dry and a little dark. So when, in a chance conversation, it was mentioned to me by John Warrack [a Gramophone critic since May 1956] that his old friend Donald Swann had also been a ‘serious’ composer with an almost forgotten catalogue of songs, I was immediately fascinated by the idea that there might be one or two lost tunes to discover. Some weeks later, introductions having been made, I arrived at the South London house of the baritone Leon Berger, Swann’s archivist and keeper of the flame, to find myself staring at manuscripts stacked floor-to-ceiling on every wall in sight…
Leon has been cataloguing Donald Swann’s work for years and, although still counting, has already reached a Schubertian total of well over 600 songs. I spent a memorable day with him, exploring dusty manuscripts and old cassette tapes, as he explained how much more there was to Donald than his onstage persona of ‘the daffy, strange odd-ball at the piano’. He began with the mixed bag of songs from Swann’s university days, including one to words by his friend John Betjeman - another artist whose future popularity would sometimes obscure his seriousness. The soaring melody of A Subaltern’s Love Song pulls at the heart and its breathless accompaniment perfectly evokes all the erotic tremulousness of love-struck outsider at a Surrey tennis party. There’s an ambivalence to the song that anyone who knows Flanders and Swann numbers like Misalliance and The Armadillo will recognise, as Swann catches every detail of the satire, but is also drawn to the longing that lies beneath it. It’s hard to think of any composer who has captured Betjeman’s world better.
Stylistically, Donald was already a magpie. His Russian heritage (his father was a doctor in Russia, emigrating to England after the Revolution with a beautiful Azerbaijani wife) is heard in songs like l loved you once, which sets Pushkin to a tune that Tchaikovsky might not have disowned. War service in Greece inspired a life-long love of the land and its music, whose exotic rhythms and harmonies constantly seep into Swann’s music to spice its idiom. At the same time, he was also delving into light music and turning his hand to revue: the unforgettably wistful tune he crafted for Sydney Carter’s folk-poem The Youth of the Heart sounds a hundred years old, and provided Donald with his first big success.
Shortly after this, Swann had a chance meeting with his old schoolfriend Michael Flanders, now in a wheelchair as a result of polio. ‘I’m 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 rest is history, as their show At the Drop of a Hat soon transferred to the West End, before being exported, in various different forms, to four continents over the best part of a decade, until 1967, when the last Hat show was played in New York. The world of light entertainment would have kept this double-act on the road for much longer, but the partnership hit the buffers largely because Donald longed for more time to devote to ‘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 new emotions.’
Post-Hat, those emotions were poured into song after song. A friendship with Tolkien inspired a poignant duet, Bilbo’s Last Song, that was Donald’s favourite of all his songs; a haunting setting of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods is one of several experiments with a jazz groove; Byron’s We’ll go no more a roving reveals a love of ‘flashy, splashy piano parts’; and Rossetti’s When I am dead my dearest is one of the gems in a collection dedicated to Victorian poets, inspired and illustrated by the art historian Alison Smith, who became his second wife.
Some of Donald’s most moving songs appeared in the last year of his life, while terminally ill in a hospice. They include six settings of William Blake – a poet described by Swann, with typical affection and lack of solemnity, as ‘just another Londoner doing his own thing’. More low-key and conversational than the famous settings by Britten, they work on their own terms and convey a deep and personal love of the poetry. There’s also an unmistakable sense that Blake has led Swann onto more adventurous musical ground: ‘My dear chap’, he exclaimed down the phone to friend, ‘I think I’ve just written a dissonance!’
There were also five ‘colourisations’ of poems by Emily Dickinson that reflect Swann’s own lifelong search for solace and meaning in religion. The noble hymn-like song I had no time to hate has striking echoes of Donald’s character, as recalled by all who knew him. It was said that no one had ever been known not to like him, and his own ‘little toil of love’ brought him countless friends, as well as happiness with Alison Smith, whom he married during his final days in the hospice.
Between us, Leon and I made a shortlist and tried out these near-forgotten songs in a concert at the Ryedale Festival. We were happy to find that the audience there, along with Dame Felicity Lott, Kathryn Rudge, John Mark Ainsley and Roderick Williams, shared our enthusiasm for the ‘other’ music of a composer who is never less than a master tunesmith, and often much more. I hope listeners enjoy discovering the songs on this new CD as much as we all did. They remind us that there is fertile ground – for those who will look – between ‘serious’ and ‘light’ music, and leave a vivid picture of a man who, like all true originals, knew only how to be himself.
Christopher Glynn's new recording of Donald Swann's songs, featuring Roderick Williams, Dame Felicity Lott, Kathryn Rudge and John Mark Ainsley, is out now on Hyperion Records. For further information, please visit: hyperion-records.co.uk