It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our dear friend and past president of the AGO, Dr. Frederick L. Swann:
Frederick Lewis Swann, 91 years old, Nov. 13, 2022, peacefully at home in Palm Desert, Calif. A past president of the AGO (2002–08), he was a concert organist, choral conductor, and recording artist of great distinction. He influenced generations of organists and church musicians through his many appointments at various institutions. At the time of his death, he was artist in residence at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, a post he’d held since 2001.
Born July 30, 1931, in Lewisburg, W.Va., Swann began playing the piano at age five; by ten he was playing the organ for services at a Methodist church in Winchester, Va., where his father was pastor. After graduating from Robert E. Lee High School, where he played the piano for the school’s chorus, he went on to Northwestern University. There he studied with Thomas Matthews, who taught him much about improvisation and colorful organ registration on the acclaimed E.M. Skinner organ of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, Ill. He also studied with John Christensen, organist at First Methodist Church in Evanston, where Swann served as assistant organist during his four years in college.
After earning a degree in music, Swann attended Union Theological Seminary’s School of Sacred Music in New York City, where he studied with Hugh Porter, the school’s director. He also studied with Charles M. Courboin, then organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Living in New York at the time, Swann recalled, exposed him to a plethora of great church music around town: on any given Sunday afternoon, one could hear choral programs and concerts at such prominent venues as St. Thomas Church or St. Bartholomew’s. After serving more than a year as interim organist at New York’s Brick Presbyterian Church (during the illness of the renowned Clarence Dickinson) and concurrently as Harold Friedell’s assistant at St. Bartholomew’s, Swann entered the U.S. Army for a two-year stint.
From 1953 to 1982, Swann served at the Riverside Church in NYC as organist and director of music. The church noted on its website, “We who hear the magnificent sound of the Riverside Church organ owe a debt of gratitude to his leadership and guidance. Although the organ was originally commissioned under the direction of Virgil Fox, Fred Swann was also on staff at the time of the installation of the organ in the mid-1950s. In the succeeding years as director of music he oversaw a complete redesign of the organ console and supervised the organ’s expansion and tonal development. As such, he and those he worked with are responsible for the renowned instrument we hear today. His legacy endures with the annual Candlelight Carol Festival, which he created and which has become an established tradition of the Riverside Church. He will be greatly missed and fondly remembered for his personal warmth and collegial support to all who met him.”
In 1982, Swann was appointed director of music and organist at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., 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. He was seen by an estimated audience of 20 million viewers in 165 countries. Swann also played at weekly noonday recitals and major concerts. His performances were characterized by music critic Daniel Cariaga as “splendid, probing, brilliant and entertaining.” (Swann told the Los Angeles Times years later that he was initially criticized in some professional organist quarters for leaving the prestigious, Gothic cathedral–like Riverside Church for the Crystal Cathedral, saying he was “practically blackballed,” but that he felt quite comfortable with his decision and found the Christian theology at both churches differing only in emphasis.) The 1948 Aeolian-Skinner organ in the church’s arboretum is named the Frederick Swann Organ in his honor. Swann later served as organist of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles (home of the largest church organ in the world) from 1998 to 2001, retiring from there on his 70th birthday.
His published compositions include more than three dozen choral anthems, as well as numerous organ works based on hymn tunes. His organ and choral recordings were made at Riverside Church, Crystal Cathedral, and First Congregational Church, as well as at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and in Hawaii.
As a concert organist, Swann played more than 3,000 recitals in all 50 United States and twelve other countries. He dedicated numerous new organs in churches, concert halls, and auditoriums during his career, including at Orchestra Hall with the Chicago Symphony (1981) and at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony (1984). In 2003 he dedicated the largest church organ in Asia—at YounDong Presbyterian Church in Seoul, South Korea—and in 2004 he played the inaugural concert of the 6,125-pipe organ of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. In 2016, Swann announced his retirement as a concert organist with a series of programs in various states. His final recital on the retirement tour took place at First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, Tex.—fittingly on the 50th anniversary of his dedicatory recital on that very organ.
Swann served on the adjunct faculties of New York City’s Guilmant Organ School, the Union Theological Seminary School of Sacred Music, and the Teacher’s College of Columbia University. For ten years, he chaired the organ department of the Manhattan School of Music. He received honorary degrees from the Royal Canadian College of Organists (2016) and California’s University of Redlands (2018), where he was organist and organ professor (2007–18).
He was honored numerous times by the AGO, including being named International Performer of the Year by the NYC chapter (2002) and saluted as the Crown Prince of the King of Instruments for his “dedicated service . . . for more than a half century” at an AGO Gala recital at First Congregational Church in Los Angeles (2008). In 2010 he was presented the Edward A. Hansen Leadership Award at the AGO National Convention in Washington, D.C. In receiving the award, conferred biennially for outstanding leadership, Swann stated that he was “grateful beyond expression for the friendship and support of a veritable host of AGO members over the years. Because I have been greatly blessed with high-profile professional appointments and opportunities throughout my entire career, I have always felt that it behooved me to do my best to promote the cause of great organ and choral music in as many religious and educational areas as possible. The AGO has been an excellent vehicle for me to do this.” Swann was awarded an honorary FAGO certification in 2018.
The memorial service for Fred Swann will be held Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at 10:30 A.M. at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Palm Desert, Calif. The service will begin with 30 minutes of organ repertoire to honor Swann’s long career as an organist. All should arrive in time to be seated by 10:30. Musicians leading the service will be Douglas Leightenheimer and the St. Margaret’s Choir, along with organists David Higgs, Nathan Laube, and Todd Wilson.
Donations in Swann’s memory may be made to the AGO’s Herrmann/Swann Fund or Frederick Swann Scholarship, or to the Fred Swann Music Endowment at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church.