Katharine becomes Kay: Classical Training meets Popular Culture (1897-1928)
Music by Katharine Faulkner Swift
Words by Rudyard Kipling
Holograph vocal score
September 3, 1911
Katharine Faulkner Swift (1897–1993) grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City in an incredibly musical family—her father Samuel Swift was an organist and music critic and her mother was an accomplished amateur pianist. Swift began composing and playing the piano by ear at the age of five, and started piano lessons with Bertha Fiering Tapper at the age of seven. In 1909, she began studying composition formally with Arthur Johnston.
“Boots,” one of Swift’s earliest student compositions, is a setting of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, narrated by a soldier weary of the incessant rhythm of “boots” marching in war. The composition demonstrates Swift’s expansive harmonic language, even from an early age. Swift dedicated “Boots” to Johnston, whose tutelage later prepared her to enter the Institute of Musical Art (now the Juilliard School) in 1915 at a fifth-year level, so she could graduate in two years, rather than the usual seven. Swift considered her teachers among her greatest musical influences. In addition to Bertha Tapper and Arthur Johnston, she studied counterpoint and orchestration with Percy Goetschius and composition with Charles Martin Loeffler.
Kay Swift and first husband James Warburg
on their wedding day
June 1, 1918
In 1918, Swift married the recent Harvard graduate James Paul Warburg, of the influential Warburg banking family. In 1921, Warburg took a job at his father’s International Acceptance Bank, and the couple soon entered New York’s elite circle of artists and intellectuals. It was at this point that Swift’s exposure to New York City’s popular music culture increased significantly. Buying and remodeling a brownstone on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Swift and Warburg held frequent house parties for New York’s upper set. In 1925, at one such house party honoring the violinist Jascha Heifetz, Swift met George Gershwin for the first time.
Kay Swift and George Gershwin
at Swift and Warburg’s country home
After meeting George Gershwin a second time at a party hosted by the New York Symphony Orchestra’s conductor Walter Damrosch in 1926, Swift and Gershwin began an intimate personal and professional relationship that would last for the next ten years. Gershwin fueled Swift’s interest in popular song¬writing, and began calling her by the nickname “Kay,” which she soon adopted in her professional and personal life. At his encouragement, she took a job in 1927 as the rehearsal pianist for Rodgers and Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee as a means of learning more about the genre of musical comedy. The duo experienced New York’s popular music culture together, often playing through songs by well-known composers of the day, and attending performances in theaters and nightclub into the early mornings.
Gershwin was a frequent visitor at Swift and Warburg’s country home, “Bydale,” in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he composed the majority of An American in Paris in 1928. Gershwin later wrote a substantial portion of his Second Rhapsody and Porgy and Bess at Bydale as well. Between 1926 and 1936, Swift played an essential role in Gershwin’s compositional process, often notating passages as he played them and playing second piano for his orchestral works. After Gershwin’s death in 1937, Swift became an invaluable resource for those seeking to study, perform, or recreate his music. Over the course of her career, Swift collaborated with Ira Gershwin to arrange at least fifty-two posthumous “George Gershwin” musical numbers, using George’s sketchbooks and her own impeccable memory.