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Fine and Dandy: The Life and Work of Kay Swift Hardcover – June 10, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Kay Swift (1897–1993) lived a glorious life as a pianist and composer, companion to George Gershwin and the first woman to write a Broadway musical, Fine and Dandy. Ohl, who teaches piano at Heidelberg College in Ohio, provides an exhaustive, sometimes dense first biography of the composer. Using Swift's unpublished memoirs and interviews with her grandchildren, Ohl chronicles the pianist's breathless and charmed life, from her precocious childhood as a musical prodigy who was memorizing lyrics from operas at five years old, to her marriage to banker James Warburg and her later years of composing for Balanchine ballets and shows for Radio City Music Hall. Swift flitted through the show business world of the 1920s, '30s and '40s, and Ohl recreates this heady time in musical theater. Ohl engages in a close reading of Swift's Fine and Dandy, helping to bring the Broadway show first produced in 1930 back to our attention. As Ohl demonstrates, Swift found herself as a part of a society in which women's worth was perceived through their husband's success. Yet Swift's publications secured her membership in the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, joining the company of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and George Gershwin. While Ohl's academic tone slows her narrative at times, she deserves credit for bringing Swift back to our attention and for producing what surely will be the definitive biography of this fascinating woman. (June)
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"Vicki Ohl has written a superb, richly-nuanced biography of the American composer Kay Swift, beloved colleague of George and Ira Gershwin. Her compelling chronicle of Swift's life and work is highly recommended."
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The life of Kay Swift is for the first time revealed in a wonderfully comprehensive biography. Vicki Ohl has drawn upon many sources, including Swift's unpublished memoirs. This is the story of a woman who in addition to being Gershwin's assistant, confidante, and lover was a woman of enormous achievement in her own right.
Fine and Dandy introduces us to Kay Swift as no Gershwin biography ever has. She was a star pupil of the Institute of Musical Art (later renamed The Juilliard School), a versatile songwriter and composer, the first woman to write the entire score of a Broadway musical, and a woman whose pianistic skills, musical memory, and drive to reach new heights lasted well into her eighties and beyond.
Ms. Ohl has taken care to acquaint us with Kay Swift's personal life, touching upon her adventures, her deep disappointments, tragic losses, her wit, humor, compassion, optimism, and determination to persevere.
Fine and Dandy will be a lasting contribution to musical libraries and personal libraries everywhere. My indebtedness to Ms. Ohl's years of meticulous research is beyond expression.
This book has 238 pages of actual text, but it seemed more like 500 because of all the unnecessary and boring details. The book does not go into the important personal events like the marriages and divorces, but is chock-full of detailed verbal descriptions of obscure musical compositions. Example: "Both Swift's and Debussy's mazurkas feature a three-sharp key signature suggesting F sharp minor, although harmonies wander through unrelated keys and hit at fleeting tonal areas. Both use mostly triadic harmonies and seventh cords yet abandon strict functional harmony. Debussy uses half cadences and plagal cadences to avoid finality until the one authentic cadence at the end. Swift's cadences are more evasive. They feature traditional linear approaches to tonic in the melody, while the waltz bass confounds convention, moving to the tonic by third or tritone. Her chords often progress by intervals of a third or move in parallel motion by step, featuring planes of dominant seventh chords in an impressionistic style. Fluctuations from major to minor occur in several places." There are pages and pages like this. There are also detailed synopses of Swift's shows and other compositions. Other pages appear to be rehashes of the programs at late life tributes. I didn't read this book to find out which singers-nobody-ever-heard-of performed which forgotten song from an unproduced show at Merkin Hall in 1986. I appreciate the small bit of useful information contained in this book, but I resent having to wade through all the minutiae to get to it.