Donald Swann
Donald Ibrahím Swann was a British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 composer, musician and entertainer. He is best known to the general public for his partnership of writing and performing comic songs
Novelty song
A novelty song is a comical or nonsensical song, performed principally for its comical effect. Humorous songs, or those containing humorous elements, are not necessarily novelty songs. The term arose in Tin Pan Alley to describe one of the major divisions of popular music. The other two divisions...

 with Michael Flanders
Michael Flanders
Michael Henry Flanders OBE, was an English actor, broadcaster, and writer and performer of comic songs. He is best known to the general public for his partnership with Donald Swann performing as the duo Flanders and Swann....

 (see Flanders and Swann
Flanders and Swann
The British duo Flanders and Swann were the actor and singer Michael Flanders and the composer, pianist and linguist Donald Swann , who collaborated in writing and performing comic songs....



Donald Swann was born in Llanelli
Llanelli , the largest town in both the county of Carmarthenshire and the preserved county of Dyfed , Wales, sits on the Loughor estuary on the West Wales coast, approximately west-north-west of Swansea and south-east of the county town, Carmarthen. The town is famous for its proud rugby...

, Wales
Wales is a country that is part of the United Kingdom and the island of Great Britain, bordered by England to its east and the Atlantic Ocean and Irish Sea to its west. It has a population of three million, and a total area of 20,779 km²...

. His father was a Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

n doctor of English descent, from the expatriate community that started out as the Muscovy Company
Muscovy Company
The Muscovy Company , was a trading company chartered in 1555. It was the first major chartered joint stock company, the precursor of the type of business that would soon flourish in England, and became closely associated with such famous names as Henry Hudson and William Baffin...

, and his mother was a nurse from Transcaspia — they were refugees from the Russian Revolution
Russian Revolution of 1917
The Russian Revolution is the collective term for a series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. The Tsar was deposed and replaced by a provisional government in the first revolution of February 1917...

. 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. Sometime later the family acquired a second 'n' to their surname. His uncle Alfred wrote the first biography of Alexander Scriabin
Alexander Scriabin
Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin was a Russian composer and pianist who initially developed a lyrical and idiosyncratic tonal language inspired by the music of Frédéric Chopin. Quite independent of the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg, Scriabin developed an increasingly atonal musical system,...

 in English.

The family moved to London, where Swann attended Dulwich College Preparatory School
Dulwich College Preparatory School
Dulwich Preparatory School DCPS is a private preparatory school in Dulwich, south London, England for children aged 3–13 years. It was founded in 1885, and is the largest boys preparatory school in the United Kingdom. It will be known formally as "Dulwich Prep London" from September 2011.The...

 and Westminster School
Westminster School
The Royal College of St. Peter in Westminster, almost always known as Westminster School, is one of Britain's leading independent schools, with the highest Oxford and Cambridge acceptance rate of any secondary school or college in Britain...

 (where he first met Michael Flanders
Michael Flanders
Michael Henry Flanders OBE, was an English actor, broadcaster, and writer and performer of comic songs. He is best known to the general public for his partnership with Donald Swann performing as the duo Flanders and Swann....


In 1941 Swann was awarded an exhibition
Exhibition (scholarship)
-United Kingdom and Ireland:At the universities of Dublin, Oxford and Cambridge, and at Westminster School, Eton College and Winchester College, and various other UK educational establishments, an exhibition is a financial award or grant to an individual student, normally on grounds of merit. The...

 to Christ Church, Oxford
Christ Church, Oxford
Christ Church or house of Christ, and thus sometimes known as The House), is one of the largest constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England...

 to read modern languages. In 1942 he registered as a conscientious objector
Conscientious objector
A conscientious objector is an "individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service" on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion....

 and served with the Friends' Ambulance Unit
Friends' Ambulance Unit
The Friends' Ambulance Unit was a volunteer ambulance service, founded by individual members of the British Religious Society of Friends , in line with their Peace Testimony. The FAU operated from 1914–1919, 1939–1946 and 1946-1959 in 25 different countries around the world...

 (a Quaker relief organisation) in Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

, Palestine
Palestine is a conventional name, among others, used to describe the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and various adjoining lands....

 and Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

. After the war, Swann returned to Oxford to read Russian
Russian language
Russian is a Slavic language used primarily in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Turkmenistan and Estonia and, to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics...

 and Modern Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...


Donald Swann was married twice; he married Janet Oxborrow in 1955 and they were divorced in 1983; his second wife was the art historian Alison Smith. In 1992 he was diagnosed with cancer. He died at Trinity Hospice
Trinity Hospice
Trinity Hospice is the United Kingdom's oldest hospice, founded in 1891 by a member of the Hoare banking family. It is located in Clapham Common, London and provides specialist palliative care...

 in South London on 23 March 1994, survived by both wives and two children from his first marriage: Rachel and Natasha.


A chance meeting between Swann and Flanders in 1948 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
Ian Wallace (singer)
Ian Bryce Wallace OBE was a British bass-baritone opera and concert singer, actor and broadcaster of Scottish extraction....

 and Joyce Grenfell
Joyce Grenfell
Joyce Irene Grenfell, OBE was an English actress, comedienne, diseuse and singer-songwriter.-Early life:...

. They subsequently wrote two two-man revues, At the Drop of a Hat
At the Drop of a Hat
At the Drop of a Hat is a musical revue by Flanders and Swann, described by them as "An After-Dinner Farrago". In the show, they both sang on a nearly bare stage, accompanied by Swann on the piano...

 and At the Drop of Another Hat
At the Drop of Another Hat
At the Drop of Another Hat is musical revue by Flanders and Swann, similar in format to its long-running predecessor, At the Drop of a Hat . In the show, they both sang on a nearly bare stage, accompanied by Swann on the piano. The songs were linked by contemporary social commentary, mostly by...

, 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
C. S. Lewis
Clive Staples Lewis , commonly referred to as C. S. Lewis and known to his friends and family as "Jack", was a novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist from Belfast, Ireland...

's Perelandra
Perelandra is the second book in the Space Trilogy of C. S. Lewis, set in the Field of Arbol...

, and a setting of J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic high fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College,...

's poems from The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings is a high fantasy epic written by English philologist and University of Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien. The story began as a sequel to Tolkien's earlier, less complex children's fantasy novel The Hobbit , but eventually developed into a much larger work. It was written in...

 to music in The Road Goes Ever On
The Road Goes Ever On
The Road Goes Ever On is a song cycle that has been published as sheet music and as an audio recording. The music was written by Donald Swann, and the words are taken from poems in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth writings, especially The Lord of the Rings.The title of this opus is taken from "The...

 collection. A life-long friendship with Sydney Carter
Sydney Carter
Sydney Bertram Carter was an English poet, songwriter, folk musician, born in Camden Town, London. He is best known for the song "Lord of the Dance" , set to the tune of the American Shaker song "Simple Gifts", and the song "The Crow on the Cradle", adapted from an old folk song...

 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
William Blake
William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age...

, Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a successful family with strong community ties, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life...

, Christina Rossetti
Christina Rossetti
Christina Georgina Rossetti was an English poet who wrote a variety of romantic, devotional, and children's poems...

, Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish writer and poet. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s...

 and others. He wrote a number of hymn tune
Hymn tune
A hymn tune is the melody of a musical composition to which a hymn text is sung. Musically speaking, a hymn is generally understood to have four-part harmony, a fast harmonic rhythm , and no refrain or chorus....

s which appear in modern standard hymn books.

It is estimated that Swann wrote or set to music nearly 2,000 songs during his career.

Flanders & Swann

  • 1957 - Excerpts from At The Drop of a Hat (EP
    Extended play
    An EP is a musical recording which contains more music than a single, but is too short to qualify as a full album or LP. The term EP originally referred only to specific types of vinyl records other than 78 rpm standard play records and LP records, but it is now applied to mid-length Compact...

  • 1957 - More Excerpts from At The Drop of a Hat (EP)
  • 1957 - More out of the Hat! (EP)
  • 1959 - Little Drummer Boy/The Storke Carol (EP)
  • 1960 - At The Drop of a Hat (produced by George Martin
    George Martin
    Sir George Henry Martin CBE is an English record producer, arranger, composer and musician. He is sometimes referred to as "the Fifth Beatle"— a title that he often describes as "nonsense," but the fact remains that he served as producer on all but one of The Beatles' original albums...

  • 1961 - The Bestiary of Flanders & Swann (EP)
  • 1964 - At The Drop of Another Hat (produced by George Martin)
  • 1964 - Favourites from At The Drop of Another Hat (EP)
  • 1964 - More out of the New Hat (EP)
  • 1966 - EMI Comedy Classics (Hat and Another Hat on two cassette
    Compact Cassette
    The Compact Cassette, often referred to as audio cassette, cassette tape, cassette, or simply tape, is a magnetic tape sound recording format. It was designed originally for dictation, but improvements in fidelity led the Compact Cassette to supplant the Stereo 8-track cartridge and reel-to-reel...

  • 1967 - The Bestiary of Flanders & Swann (produced by George Martin)
  • 1975 - And Then We Wrote...
  • 1977 - Tried by the Centre Court
  • 1994 - The Complete Flanders & Swann (first three albums in a boxed set)
  • 1994 - A Transport of Delight: The Best of Flanders & Swann
  • 1997 - More out of the Drop of a Hat - Again! (double cassette)
  • 1999 - The Flanders and Swann Collection
  • 2000 - A Drop of Hilarity from Flanders & Swann
  • 2007 - Hat Trick: Flanders & Swann Collector's Edition

Other works

  • 1951 - The Youth of the Heart (78 rpm)
  • 1958 - London Sketches (Donald Swann & Sebastian Shaw
    Sebastian Shaw (actor)
    Sebastian Lewis Shaw was an English actor, director, novelist, playwright and poet. During his 65-year career, Shaw appeared in dozens of stage performances and more than 40 film and television productions....

  • 1963 - Festival Matins (EP)
  • 1964 - Songs of Faith & Doubt (EP)
  • 1965 - For The Love of Betjeman (Donald Swann & Sir John Betjeman
    John Betjeman
    Sir John Betjeman, CBE was an English poet, writer and broadcaster who described himself in Who's Who as a "poet and hack".He was a founding member of the Victorian Society and a passionate defender of Victorian architecture...

    , EP)
  • 1966 - Donald Swann & the Choir of the Friends' School, Saffron Walden (EP)
  • 1967 - Tolkien: Poems & Songs of Middle Earth (Donald Swann & William Elvin)
  • 1968 - Sing Round The Year (Boys of Westminster School and Girls of Mayfield Putney)
  • 1970 - An Evening in Crete (Donald Swann & Lilli Malandraki)
  • 1971 - The Song of Caedmon (Donald Swann & Arthur Scholey, EP)
  • 1973 - A Crack in Time (The Swann Singers)
  • 1973 - Wacky & His Fuddlejig (Donald Swann & Arthur Scholey, narrated by Peter Ustinov
    Peter Ustinov
    Peter Alexander Ustinov CBE was an English actor, writer and dramatist. He was also renowned as a filmmaker, theatre and opera director, stage designer, author, screenwriter, comedian, humourist, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio broadcaster and television presenter...

    , EP)
  • 1973 - The Rope of Love (The Swann Singers)
  • 1975 - The Parable of the Lost Sons (Donald Swann & The Nairobi
    Nairobi is the capital and largest city of Kenya. The city and its surrounding area also forms the Nairobi County. The name "Nairobi" comes from the Maasai phrase Enkare Nyirobi, which translates to "the place of cool waters". However, it is popularly known as the "Green City in the Sun" and is...

     Youth Choir, EP)
  • 1980 - Radio Orwell (The Olive Quantrill Singers)
  • 1981 - Swann with Topping (Donald Swann & Frank Topping)
  • 1984 - Requiem for the Living (Donald Swann & Cecil Day-Lewis
    Cecil Day-Lewis
    Cecil Day-Lewis CBE was an Irish poet and the Poet Laureate from 1968 until his death in 1972. He also wrote mystery stories under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake...

  • 1989 - Alphabetaphon (Donald Swann, 3 cassettes)
  • 1992 - Amiscelleny (Donald Swann & John Amis
    John Amis
    John Preston Amis , is a British broadcaster, classical music critic, music administrator, and writer. He has been a frequent contributor for The Guardian and to BBC radio and television music programming....

  • 1994 - Swann in Jazz
  • 1999 - The Isles of Greece

External links

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