Fred Swann dead at 91

November 19, 2022
Frederick Lewis Swann
Frederick Lewis Swann

Frederick Lewis Swann, 91, died November 13, 2022. Born July 30, 1931, in Lewisburg, West Virginia, he was the son of a Methodist pastor (and later bishop). He began taking piano lessons at age five from the organist at Market Street Methodist Church, Winchester, Virginia, and soon thereafter began taking organ lessons. He began playing his first church services at age ten at Braddock Street Methodist Church, Winchester, where his father was pastor.

Swann’s family moved to Staunton, Virginia, in 1943, and Frederick continued organ study with Carl Broman. After graduating from high school, Swann entered the School of Music at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, studying with Thomas Matthews and John Christensen. Upon graduation, he attended the School of Sacred Music at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, studying with Hugh Porter and Charles M. Courboin. After serving as interim organist at Brick Presbyterian Church during the illness of Clarence Dickinson and serving as Harold Friedell’s assistant at St. Bartholomew’s Church, Swann entered the United States Army for two-years stint.

From 1952 until 1982, Swann worked for The Riverside Church, New York City, first as a substitute organist for Virgil Fox and then appointed organist in 1957. With the retirement of Richard Weagly as choir director in 1966, Swann became director of music and organist through 1982.

At that time, Swann was appointed director of music and organist at the Crystal Cathedral (now Christ Cathedral), Garden Grove, California, where he conducted the choir and presided over the five-manual, 265-rank Hazel Wright organ, appearing weekly on the internationally televised Hour of Power worship services. In 1988, Swann became organist of First Congregational Church, Los Angeles, which houses the largest church organ in the world, serving there until 2001.

Frederick Swann performed recitals throughout North America, Europe, South America, and Asia, including such venues as Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris; St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, London; and the cathedrals of Cologne and Passau in Germany. His accomplishments include more than 3,000 recitals in all 50 states of the United States and 12 other countries, including events dedicating new, rebuilt, and restored instruments. He performed with orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony. Swann announced his retirement as a concert organist with a series of programs beginning in August 2016 at age 85. He would continue to serve as artist-in-residence at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Palm Desert, California, until his death.

Swann served on the adjunct faculties the Guilmant Organ School, the Union Theological Seminary School of Sacred Music, and Teacher’s College of Columbia University, all in New York City. He also served on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and was the school’s organ department chair. From 2007 until 2018, he was university organist and artist teacher of organ at the University of Redlands in California.

Swann was active in the American Guild of Organists, serving in various capacities including the organization’s president from 2002 until 2008. Also in 2002, he was named International Performer of the Year by the New York City AGO Chapter. At the 2010 AGO national convention in Washington, D.C., he was presented the Edward A. Hansen Leadership Award. In 2015, the Royal Canadian College of Organists named Swann a Fellow, honoris causa, and in 2018 the AGO honored him as the organization’s first honoris causa recipient of its Fellow certificate (FAGO). Swann received the honorary Doctor of Music degree from the University of Redlands upon his retirement in 2018.

Frederick Swann published more than three dozen anthems for choir, as well as organ works based on hymntunes. Perhaps his best known composition is his Trumpet Tune in D Major. Swann’s discography of organ and choral recordings includes albums featuring the organs of The Riverside Church, Crystal Cathedral, First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

For more information, see Steven Egler’s interview, “A conversation with Frederick Swann, Crown Prince of the King of Instruments,” in the November 2014 issue, pages 20–24.


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