Howard Swanson was an African American composer best known for his art songs based on the poetry of Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Swanson was born in Atlanta, Georgia on August 18, 1907. Born in a middle class home, Swanson’s family sent his two older brothers to college which was for the time unusual.
Swanson’s music career started after the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio in 1916. As a young boy he often sang in his church, sometimes performing duets with his mother. In 1925 when he was 18, Swanson’s father died which immediately and dramatically changed the family’s circumstances. Howard Swanson now had to earn money to support the family. After high school graduation he worked in the Cleveland Post Office.
In 1927, as his circumstances improved, Swanson decided to continue his education. He attended the Cleveland Institute of Music where he studied piano, eventually graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in music theory a decade later. In 1939 he received a Rosenwald Fellowship which allowed him to study in Paris, France with famed music instructor Nadia Boulanger. Swanson had planned to pursue graduate studies in Paris but in 1940 he was forced to evacuate Paris as the German Army overran France.
Upon return to the United States he got a job with the Internal Revenue Service while studying and composing music on the side. In 1950, at the age of 43, Howard Swanson produced his first significant composition, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a musical set to Langston Hughes’s famous poem of that name. His composition was performed in Carnegie Hall by Marian Anderson. Later that year his work Short Symphony was played by the New York Philharmonic orchestra. Swanson’s other works include “Music for Strings” (1952), “Concerto for Orchestra” (1957), and “Symphony No. 3” (1969).
Howard Swanson’s style was of the neoclassical school. Although his music drew mostly from western European styles he did incorporate African American styles with the addition of rhythmic complexity, syncopation, and instances of beat phrasing. Swanson returned to Paris after being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. He remained there until 1966. While in Europe he was commissioned to compose works for the Louisville Symphony Orchestra and the Julliard School of Music. In 1966 he returned to New York City.
Howard Swanson died in New York City on November 12, 1978.