Saturday 17 June 2023

Swann's Way

 Talking of Flanders and Swann, Donald Swann – the bespectacled pianist with the agreeable tenor voice – had always struck me as an archetypally English figure, the specific English archetype being the amiable, bespectacled curate (C of E, of course). Then I noticed that his middle name was Ibrahim. How come? 
It turns out that Swann's father, Herbert Alfredovich Swann, was a Russian doctor of English descent – from one Alfred Trout Swan (the 'n' was doubled later), a Lincolnshire draper who emigrated to Russia in 1840 and married the daughter of the tsars' horologer. Herbert Alfredovich Swann was part of that expatriate English community in Moscow so memorably depicted in Penelope Fitzgerald's brilliant novel The Beginning of Spring – a community that originated in the 16th century with the Muscovy Company. What's more, Donald's Russian uncle, Alfred Swan, was a composer and musicologist who wrote the first biography of Scriabin. As for Donald's mother, born Naguimé Sultán Piszóva, she was a Turkmen-Russian nurse from Ashgabat. Both parents fled the Russian Revolution, ending up in London, whence their son (born 1923) was launched on a very English education: Dulwich College Prep, Westminster School, Christ Church, Oxford. It was at Westminster that he met Flanders and the pair staged their first revue. They met again by chance in 1948, and by the 1950s their witty musical double-act was wowing audiences around the English-speaking world. 
So there you have it – an archetypal Englishman who, like many in the days of Empire and industrial/trade expansion, had a great deal more in his pedigree than might have been expected. 


  1. Vintage Nige! Fascinating stuff. I got the record of At the Drop of a Hat for my 13th birthday and still have it. Googling put me on to John Amis’s excellent obituary of Donald in the Independent, which is just as interesting as your post.