Donald Swann was born in Llanelli, Wales on September 30, 1923. His father was a Russian doctor, and his mother was a nurse from Transcaspia - they were refugees from the Russian Revolution. The family moved to London, where Swann attended Dulwich Preparatory School and Westminster School (where he first met Michael Flanders).
In 1941 Swann was awarded an exhibition to Christ Church, Oxford, to read modern languages. In 1942 he registered as a conscientious objector and served with the Friends' Ambulance Unit (a Quaker non-combatant unit) in Egypt, Palestine and Greece. After the war, Swann returned to Oxford to read Russian and Modern Greek.
A chance meeting with Flanders in 1948 let to the start of their professional partnership. They began writing songs and light opera, Swann writing the music and Flanders writing the words. Their songs were performed by artists such as Ian Wallace and Joyce Grenfell. They subsequently wrote two two-man revues, At The Drop Of A Hat and At The Drop Of Another Hat, which they performed all over the world until their partnership ended in 1967.
At the same time, Swann was maintaining a prolific musical output, writing the music for several operas and operettas, and setting Tolkien's poems from The Lord of the Rings to music. After his partnership with Flanders ended, Swann continued to give solo concerts and to write for other singers. He also formed the Swann Singers and toured with them in the 1970s.
In 1992 Donald Swann was diagnosed with cancer, and he died at Trinity Hospice in South London on March 23 1994. It is estimated that he wrote or set to music nearly 2,000 songs during his long career.