“Tomorrow’s overture is always best, no codas for me – I’m a no-stalgia gal.”—Kay Swift, 1975
Reflecting on her lack of “no-stalgia” at age 78, composer Kay Swift (born “Katharine Faulkner Swift”; 1897–1993) aptly summarized a long and prolific career in music. Born into a gifted musical family—Swift’s father was an organist and music critic for several small New York papers, her grandmother was a composer, and her mother a highly proficient pianist—Swift began composing and playing the piano by ear at the age of five. At age 89 she gave her final New York performance at a concert celebrating her life work. The title of the newest piano piece she performed at this October 1986 concert? “Keep On Keeping On.”
Beyond the length and indefatigable drive that characterized her career, Swift’s contributions to twentieth century American music are notable for a number of reasons—some noted more frequently than others. Perhaps George Gershwin’s closest companion and collaborator from 1926 to 1936, Swift played an essential role in promoting and producing Gershwin’s music both during his lifetime and after his death in 1937. While Swift chose to dedicate a substantial portion of her career to Gershwin’s work, many music critics and historians have focused on Swift’s contributions to Gershwin’s musical legacy to the exclusion of her own.
Trained as a classical pianist and composer at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School), Swift began writing popular music in the mid-1920s. With lyrics by her first husband, James Warburg, Swift’s songs, including her most popular standard “Can’t We Be Friends?” (1929), started appearing in Broadway musicals and revues by 1928. In 1930, Swift and Warburg wrote music and lyrics for the musical comedy Fine and Dandy—the first hit Broadway show to feature a complete score by a woman composer.
After four years assisting Gershwin on many of his largest projects (The Cuban Overture, Porgy and Bess), Swift went on to write music for one of George Balanchine’s first American ballets (Alma Mater—1934), serve as a staff composer at Radio City Music Hall (1935–1936), and work as Director of Light Music for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In fall of 1939, Swift left New York for central Oregon with her second husband, rodeo star Faye Hubbard, where she wrote and published an autobiographical novel, Who Could Ask for Anything More? (1943), and composed music for the book’s movie adaptation, Never a Dull Moment (1950). Moving back to New York in 1948, Swift wrote the score for Cornelia Otis Skinner’s one-woman Broadway show Paris ’90 (1950) and began composing a song cycle dedicated to each of her grandchildren, Reaching for the Brass Ring. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Swift composed music for a number of World’s Fairs and industrial shows, and continued writing works for solo piano, chamber ensemble, and voice through the 1980s.
Through a combination of photographs, programs, writings, scores, and record-ings from the Gilmore Music Library’s Kay Swift Papers (MSS 65), “Tomorrow’s Overture is Always Best”: The Music of Kay Swift will provide a glance into the unique breadth of Swift’s musical output and her substantial contributions to American music, from the concert hall to the Broadway stage. While Swift rightly pushed back against the descriptor “woman composer,” the exhibit will also consider the ways in which gender intersected with Swift’s career, and shed light on a groundbreaking figure who made a successful career out of composition at a time when few other women had the opportunity.
--Emma Hathaway, TD ’17
Emma Hathaway curated this exhibit in connection with her senior essay at Yale, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?”: Kay Swift's Fine and Dandy Legacy, written under the guidance of Professors Daniel Egan and James Hepokoski. On Thursday, April 27 at 4:30 PM in Seminar Room 101B upstairs in the Music Library, Emma will give a talk on Kay Swift, and she will perform some of Swift’s songs.
--Richard Boursy, Archivist