Swift, Kay, 1897-1993

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Composer of "Can't we be friends" and other songs, friend and protegée of Gershwin.

From the description of Autographed page of concert program : New York, to James Fuld, 1978 May 20. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270910507

American musical theater composer.

From the description of The Kay Swift papers, 1894-1993 (inclusive). (Yale University). WorldCat record id: 702152168

Kay Swift (1897-1993) is known today primarily for her close association with George Gershwin. As a composer, however, she was a pioneer, producing scores for Broadway and the American Ballet at a time when few women wrote for the stage. Her music spans seven decades and ranges in style from highbrow to lowbrow. For the same work she could compose complex contrapuntal music one moment and a jazzy, popular melody the next. The Papers of Kay Swift at the Yale University Music Library document most of her creative activity, from the earliest period of her career until the end of her life.

Born in New York City on April 19, 1897, Katharine Faulkner Swift was the daughter of Ellen Mary Faulkner and Samuel Swift, who was music critic at the New York Evening Mail . She received formal conservatory training in music, studying composition and piano with Arthur Edward Johnstone and Bertha Feiring Tapper, respectively, at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School), and with Charles Martin Loeffler and Heinrich Gebhard at the New England Conservatory. (Leonard Bernstein would later also study with Gebhard.) With Percy Goetschius, Swift learned counterpoint and orchestration. As a performer Swift accompanied singers and instrumentalists, and toured with the Edith Rubell string trio.

In 1918 Swift married the banker James P. Warburg, with whom she had three daughters: April, Kay, and Andrea. Although the marriage put an end to her performing activities, it launched her career as a Broadway composer. Warburg (using the pen name Paul James) and Swift collaborated on songs for interpolation into three Broadway revues: The First Little Show (1929), Garrick Gaieties (1930), and The Nine-Fifteen Revue (1930). The song "Can't We Be Friends" has been a favorite ever since Libby Holman first sang it to Clifton Webb in The First Little Show . The Swift-James collaboration reached its peak in 1930 with the opening of the hit musical Fine and Dandy, for which they wrote the complete score. It ran 255 performances, longer than Strike Up the Band (191 performances), one of Gershwin's two musicals of the same year.

Swift's intimate relationship with George Gershwin began in 1925 and led to her divorce from Warburg. In 1937, two years after the divorce, Gershwin died in California of a brain tumor. Throughout her life, Swift was considered an invaluable source of knowledge about Gershwin and his music. She and Ira Gershwin used sketches for songs left unfinished by George to construct a score for the 20th Century Fox film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1946), which starred Betty Grable and Dick Haymes. Swift also helped to reconstruct Gershwin's music for posthumous publication and recordings. For example, she provided some of the harmonization for "The Union League" from the 1933 musical Let 'Em Eat Cake .

In 1934 George Balanchine commissioned Swift to write a ballet about student life at Yale during the twenties. Morton Gould provided the orchestrations for the ballet called Alma Mater . (She made extensive revisions to the score in the early 1970s for a revival that never took place.) In 1935-36 Swift worked as a staff composer at Radio City Music Hall, collaborating on songs with lyricist Al Stillman. She served as supervisor of music for the 1939 New York World's Fair. At the Fair's rodeo exhibition she met her second husband, rancher Faye Hubbard. They spent their six-year marriage in Oregon raising Hubbard's two daughters and training stunt horses for Hollywood. In 1943 Swift published a fictional account of her experience as a rancher's wife, Who Could Ask For Anything More? RKO adapted the book for the 1950 film Never a Dull Moment, starring Irene Dunne and Fred MacMurray, with music by Swift herself.

Swift's other full-length Broadway score was for Paris '90 (1952), a showcase for Cornelia Otis Skinner about Parisian life in the late nineteenth century. This time Swift was her own lyricist. Orchestrations were by Robert Russell Bennett, who had orchestrated several of Gershwin's musicals.

Throughout the 1950s Swift remained active both as a composer and a Gershwin expert. She wrote songs and incidental music for Marc Connelly's play Hunter's Moon, which opened and quickly closed in London in 1958. One song from the play, "Look Skyward," was published separately by Chappell. In 1959 Samuel Goldwyn hired Swift for a national lecture tour to promote the film version of Porgy and Bess . Swift later wrote about her experiences on the road.

In the 1960s Swift received numerous commissions for a variety of projects developed and coordinated by Alfred Stern, whom she had first met at Radio City in the 1930s. The first of these came from the Camp Fire Girls Association for the composition of One Little Girl, a musical commemorating the organization's golden anniversary. Hans Spialek, orchestrator for both Fine and Dandy and The First Little Show, did the orchestrations. In 1962 she was commissioned to write the music for the Century 21 Exposition in Seattle. She also provided the scores for the Borden Company's exhibition All About Elsie and the Clairol Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair. (The former had a script by Joel Oliansky, then Playwright-in-Residence at Yale.) For the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, the American Medical Association engaged her to write music for their presentation Dr. Rush Pays a House Call .

Swift also wrote instrumental works (for example a Theme and Variations for piano and 'cello for Marie Rosanoff) and many individual songs based on texts by a variety of writers, including Ursula Vaughan Williams and Swift's daughters Andrea Kaufman and April Gigliano. The most celebrated of these works is Reaching for the Brass Ring, a song cycle in honor of her grandchildren. The Philadelphia Orchestra first performed the cycle in 1953.

With various collaborators, including her third and last husband, Hunter Galloway, Swift created numerous proposals and song sketches for stage and television musicals. She collaborated with Robert Lewis Taylor on a show about the life of Bobby Clark, with Rumer Godden on a musical adaptation for her novel A Candle for St. Jude, and with Deems Taylor on Spring Again, for which she set lyrics to music by Puccini. Unfortunately, none of these projects ever reached the stage.

Swift also arranged music by other composers. She made a chorus arrangement of "Aquarius" from the rock musical Hair . She was in her seventies at the time. She arranged Gershwin's "Yankee Doodle Blues" for Eva Jessye, the chorus director for the original Porgy and Bess . For the wedding of her granddaughter Katharine Kaufman Weber, she made a flute and trombone arrangement of a bourrée by Bach.

A musical tribute to Kay Swift was held in New York at Merkin Concert Hall on October 14, 1986. The concert was hosted by William Bolcom and featured Julie Wilson, Joan Morris, and Steve Ross. Swift herself performed two piano works, "For Betsy," written in memory of her granddaughter killed in a car accident, and "Keep On Keeping On," her last known composition. She died in Southington, Connecticut on January 28, 1993.

From the guide to the The Kay Swift Papers, 1894-1993 (inclusive), (Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Stewart, Donald Ogden, 1894-1980. Fine and dandy. New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf Swift, Kay, 1897-1993. The Kay Swift papers, 1894-1993 (inclusive). Yale University, Music Library
referencedIn Nicolas Slonimsky Collection, 1873-1997, (bulk 1920-1990) Library of Congress. Music Division
referencedIn John Mason Brown papers, 1922-1967. Houghton Library
referencedIn Atkins, Irene Kahn, 1922-. Major figures in American music [S-Z] : [oral history]. Yale University Library
referencedIn Bennett, Robert Russell, 1894-1981. Typewritten letter signed, dated : New York, 2 October 1971, to William Henry Wray in Hull, England, 1971 Oct. 2. Pierpont Morgan Library.
referencedIn Coleman, Cy. Yours for a Song Collection of Noncommercial Video Recordings [videorecording] / Lumiere Productions. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Bookspan, Martin. WQXR great artists series, 1949-1983 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn George and Ira Gershwin Collection, 1895-2008, (bulk 1920-1960) Library of Congress. Music Division
referencedIn Johnny Green additional papers, 1923-1989. Harvard Theater Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
creatorOf Gershwin, George, 1898-1937. George and Ira Gershwin collection, 1895-2008 (bulk 1920-1960). Library of Congress
creatorOf The Kay Swift Papers, 1894-1993 (inclusive) Irving S. Gilmore Music Library
referencedIn Teresa Sterne Papers, 1913-1979 The New York Public Library. Music Division.
referencedIn Ashby, Grant E., Mrs. Mrs. Grant E. Ashby rodeo collection, 1924-1983. National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
creatorOf Swift, Kay, 1897-1993. Autographed page of concert program : New York, to James Fuld, 1978 May 20. Pierpont Morgan Library.
Role Title Holding Repository
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Place Name Admin Code Country


Birth 1897-04-19

Death 1993-01-28


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