Born in St Petersburg in 1890 (Oct. 9 OS) into an English family and baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church, he joined the Russian Orthodox faith in 1936, having always felt an unswerving devotion to its tradition and authority fostered significantly by his deep interest in its authentic old chants. His remarkable contribution to Russian church culture should alert those choristers and choir directors who are dedicated to renew and promote the best in the rich tradition of our centuries-old liturgical singing. This was indeed also Prof. Swan's goal for the greater part of his distinguished career. His background is impressive and deserves our attention.
Swan was the offspring of a British family who had done business in Russia for over five generations in an Indian Rubber company. He was raised as an English boy and his first language was English. Yet, he learned Russian almost simultaneously at his nanny's knee and Russian eventually became his most beloved language and was cultivated at home and at school along with German and French as was customary in elitarian circles of that period. He went to England for the first time in 1904, as a 14-year-old schoolboy to spend his vacations with relatives at a family estate (Barnard Castle). Endowed with unusual musical abilities which he probably owed to his mother, an excellent pianist, he received early musical training, first on the piano and then violin lessons with Leopold Lange, a pupil of Auer. He started quartet playing as a teenager with amateur and professional groups. The reward was a Niccolo Gagliano violin, well deserved after a nasty diphtheria bout. After graduating in 1907 from St. Catherine's, a German school in St Petersburg, he returned to England to study history at Oxford. Later he switched to law at Exeter, but most likely spent more time making music than aspiring to become a practicing lawyer. Eventually he was hired by the Public Notary of the Exchange for the foreign division in St. Petersburg, where he immediately began his serious studies of music at the Conservatory with Professors Kalafati, Winkler, Karatygin and others. His major interest was focused on folk-songs and very early on ancient church chants. At that time he composed a cycle of songs which was performed in concert at St Petersburg in 1914, and was well reviewed.
During World War I and the ensuing unsettling years of revolution and civil war, he worked with his fiance? and subsequent wife Catherine (m. 1915) in the so-called "children's colonies" organized for the protection of orphaned and dislocated or abandoned children. In 1918, under the auspices of the American Red Cross and the assistance of the YMCA, he saved about 1,000 children from hunger and the chaotic terror spreading over most parts of Russia. He led the children from the outskirts of St Petersburg across Siberia to Vladivostok and further on to a Japanese island to be eventually brought around the world and reunited with their families in Petrograd or assigned to children's homes (in the fall of 1921). This was an enormously difficult, dangerous and daring enterprise which bears testimony to Swan's courage and generous nobility of spirit. Several of those children kept close ties with him until his death in 1970, in spite of the ever watching and threatening eye of the KGB. Swan visited his former "pupils-colonists" in Russia in 1963 and in 1966, and was greeted each time with unfailing affection.
At the completion of that heroic feat, Swan settled in the United States and began his distinguished teaching career, first at the University of Virginia and later on dual appointment at Swarthmore and Haverford colleges, teaching at the latter up to three days before he died. His courses ranged from music history (esp. Russian) to theory, harmony and composition. At the same time he gave chamber concerts, arranged concert tours, and compiled an anthology of folk songs for which Rachmaninov and Prokofiev harmonized several items. He also wrote biographies of Scriabin and Medtner, books on Modern Music and on Russian Music and Its Sources in Chant and Folk-Songs, and, most importantly, numerous seminal studies on Russian Orthodox ancient chants, their history, nature and connection with folk-songs, their notations and the different attempts at their revival and harmonization. All these studies were published between 1936-1965 in the prestigious journals of the American Musicological Society and the Musical Quarterly. He also contributed articles to Russian Orthodox journals, repeatedly appealing to turn to the precious fonts of our rich heritage and to renew the present, somewhat impoverished and trite practice of liturgical singing at the pure sources of authentic Russian chants, unadulterated by alien influences.
Swan's activities were closely linked to life-long friendships with prominent musicians, composers, and musicologists who shared his views in the West and with such a master like Brazhnikov in Russia (then USSR), who persisted in his research of church chants against all odds of his life-threatening environment. Swan's connections reached from Diagilev, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Koussevitsky, Benois, Medtner to Ray Vaughn-Williams, Joseph Hawthorne, Holst, Wellesz, Velimirovich and many more. On his research trips to Europe he met regularly with Michail M. Ossorguine (St. Sergius Seminary, Paris), Prof. Johann v. Gardner (when he was still an archimandrite in Jerusalem and in Carpatho-Russia, and later in Munich where he was professor of Eastern Orthodox Music and Paleography at Munich University), Father Julian at Valaam Monastery, Karl Linke (Cologne), Ludwig Pichler (Collegium Russicum at the Vatican), Archimandrite Irenaeus Totzke in the Benedictine Monastery of Niederalteich, Bavaria - all the most prominent champions for the same renewal of Russian Orthodox choral music. He also collaborated with Boris M. Ledkovsky in the USA in the 50s and 60s, lecturing on ancient chants at Ledkovsky' choir concerts and sharing his views on the setting of the Znamenny chant.
Swan was an enlightened, highly cultured and many-sided person. His interests were by no means limited to Russian music: he taught, performed and recorded works ranging from medieval music to the Renaissance and to contemporary music, always guided by his immaculate taste and enlightened spirit. Yet his primary objective was to familiarize the West with the riches of Russian music, especially the ancient Russian church chants (mainly Znamenny chant). Based on his intensive investigation of primary sources, he presents to western musicologists a historical overview of the development of Russian liturgical singing, the rise of the Znamenny chant to extraordinary heights by the 15th-16th cc., and its gradual disappearance from usage in parish churches with the intrusion of western modes into church choral performance beginning about the middle of the 17th c. Like his friends and champions in this endeavor, he repeatedly deplores the westernized mode of singing as it continues to dominate the liturgical practices in Russia and in the diaspora. He then traces the desperate attempts to recapture that almost vanished art since the first half of the 19th century, culminating in the achievements of the great scholars Smolensky and Metallov at the beginning of the 20th century. Swan encourages his students and readers to continue that task which "has already inspired such composers as Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov, and has moulded a figure of the type of Kastalsky." Furthermore, Swan points to a certain resemblance between Znamenny chant and Russian folk-song while emphasizing that "this resemblance is limited to some characteristic groupings of intervals within the various phrases of the chant," but that "while in the folk-song these groupings are saturated with a strong [dance] rhythm, in the chant any marked rhythm would be wholly out of place." According to all basic studies, "the chant flows on in strict conformity with the text, and at best its phrases have a rhythm like that of elevated prose.... Text and melody are [totally] interdependent." Swan also insists that the original Byzantine chant, probably first introduced at the Christianization of Rus', has been transmuted by infusion "into actual [Byzantine] melodies an entirely new musical meaning, in keeping with the sound of the Russian folk-song and [the newly converted Kievan Slavs'] own taste and individuality." Independently of the other two great Russian Orthodox musicologists of the 20th century, Gardner and Brazhnikov, Swan investigated the rare Kondakarion notation (extant in only five out of the existing twenty-six monuments of the pre-Mongol period) and bequeathed a valuable description of those manuscripts to future palaeographers.
Together with his friend and colleague Maksim Brazhnikov, but again quite independently, Swan arrives at the conclusion that the singers of the sixteenth century did know some sort of part-singing, that they "were guided by the same natural instinct as folk-singers in harmonizing folk-songs... [and that] manuscripts in the Znamenny notation in two, three or four parts are extant ... with purely Russian names for these various parts." Brazhnikov's dissertation topic is precisely on "The Polyphony of the Znamenny Scores" (1945). Brazhnikov has written several articles on the Znamenny polyphony, almost at the same time as Swan, most of which have not been published, but apparently have been used by indiscriminate colleagues for their own purposes and promotion. Swan's, Brazhnikov's and Gardner's studies of ancient manuscripts have laid the groundwork for further investigations of earlier notations and those may well disprove the heretofore prevailing assumptions that all early church singing was in unison (like Ossorguine e.g.).
In analyzing the nature of the folk-song, Swan points to the most frequent intervals appearing below or above the principal melody in folk-songs, namely, the third and the fifth, though parallel open fifths are rarer than those mitigated by the third. He shows that parallel fourths, on the other hand, are not infrequent and reminds us of Borodin's music so strongly derived from popular conceptions. Swan hails especially Kastalsky for applying those harmonic polyphonic principles which were found in peasant performances of folk-songs to his harmonizations of the old chant. For those "accustomed to the tame settings, in the German style, by Lvov, Bakhmetev, Tchaikovsky" and many more, Kastalsky's innovative manner came as a shock. Stylization of folk-songs as it was done by most composers before Kastalsky's settings finally gave way to music derived from the living ways and habits of the polyphony of the people. Swan, an accomplished composer with several quartets, orchestral pieces and sonatas for the piano and violin to his credit, basically applied Kastalsky's and his own observations on the nature of the folk-songs to his settings of the Znamenny chant. His "harmonic surroundings [for the chant] were drawn ... from the intonations of folk-singers." Like Kastalsky he allowed the main melody to flow freely from one voice to another with harmonization above as well as below. In the dissonance he went beyond Kastalsky, preferring in this to follow the folk-singers. Swan has created about fourteen settings of the Znamenny chant in most of the eight tones, and a complete Liturgy and Vespers service. But he admits that in his last settings he has become uncanonical by bringing in imitation in the western manner and by adding little non-thematic counter-points to the main melody, yet not distorting the line of the chant.
Swan's friend, Brazhnikov was likewise working on appropriate settings of ancient chants at about the same time in Russia. His deciphering of Znamenny notations of Fyodor Krestianin (late 16th c.), Tsar Fyodor (mid-17th c.), and of unknown authors (16-17th cc.) were recorded in 1968 by Alexander Yurlov's Academic Choir. Swan held Brazhnikov's work in high esteem "not only because of its intrinsic value but also because he has carried on his shoulders practically the entire burden of church music research in the USSR" during the darkest and most trying years of Soviet terror. Brazhnikov, for his part, wrote an article about the "Transatlantic Friend of Russian Music" which was dedicated to Swan. Those two eminent musicologists together with Gardner uncovered invaluable treasures for posterity by exploring in depth our ancient church chants while working at quite different locations, but at the same time (Gardner lived longer than Swan [+1970] and Brazhnikov [+1973]; he passed away in 1984 still working on his beloved "hooks" [kriuki or znamena]). Swan's, Gardner's and Brazhnikov's contribution to the studies on the Znamenny chant has paved the way for new generations of scholars, who are at a great advantage in comparison to their elder teachers. The present scholars can base their research on the former pioneering achievements while working under far more favorable conditions. To the young scholars, musicians, directors and choristers go our wishes for success and satisfaction in the indefatigable efforts for the glory of our Church, whereas our deep appreciation belongs to the previous generation, who in part have inspired our conferences. Yet, we owe special gratitude to Alfred J. Swan, "that British American with a Russian Orthodox soul," whose path-breaking work in this country has fostered world knowledge and appreciation of Russian Orthodox Church music. He should remain an inspiration to our conferences as one of our "founding fathers."
List of Works in the catalogue of Bardic Edition
Album of piano pieces (BDE 66) - piano solo
Flute Quartet (BDE 122) - flute, violin, viola and violoncello
Song of Glorification (BDE 110) - SATB a cappella
String Quartet No. 1 (BDE 121) - 2 violins, viola and violoncello
String Quartet No. 3 (BDE 123) - 2 violins, viola and violoncello
String Quartet No. 4 (BDE 124) - 2 violins, viola and violoncello
String Quartet No. 5 (BDE 125) - 2 violins, viola and violoncello
String Quartet No. 6 (BDE 126) - 2 violins, viola and violoncello
Violin Sonata No. 2 (BDE 227) - violin and piano
Other works published
Trio (Belaieff) - flute, clarinet and piano
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