Walter Swanson

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Walter Swanson (1903-1985) was a musician, composer and conductor.


Born on 19 June 1903 in Willesden Green, London. From the age of ten he received his music education at All Saints’ Margaret Street, London. In 1919 he won the Ada Lewis Scholarship which enabled him to continue his violin studies under Spencer Dyke at the Royal Academy of Music.

He married Marjorie Hill in 1963.


In 1922 and 1923 he worked as a rehearsal pianist and assistant conductor for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.

Swanson came to South Africa in the early 1920s. In 1924 he was appointed as the string teacher at the Teacher’s Training College in Grahamstown. For two years he performed in various ensembles as a violinist, and was a conductor of chamber orchestras. Having heard the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra on tour in Grahamstown in April 1924, he decided to join the orchestra in 1925 under the conductor, Leslie Heward. In 1927 he became assistant conductor of the CTMO under William Pickerill.

He was later Staff Conductor for the SABC for over ten years and his work as Musical Director includes variety shows, Opera and Symphony Concerts.

In the 1960s he was involved as musical director and repetiteur in a number of UCT and CAPAB productions.

Swanson died on 27 February 1985.

Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

As composer

In March 1929 Swanson conducted his musical comedy, Cheat the Calendar, which he had completed in collaboration with Max Miller, at the Opera House.

In 1971, Swanson entered his musical comedy, The Princess Who Wouldn’t for the Otto Bach competition and shared the first prize with Archie Wilson.

He wrote the music for a number of children's operettas including The Mill of Youth (with librettist Archibald J.A. Wilson‎‎) and Rip van Winkle (with librettist Jac J. Brits) in 1984.

He also wrote the music for Ali Baba and a Christmas cantata, Die Wyse van die Ooste.

As conductor

Swanson was a versatile conductor, evident from the number of musicals, operas and ballets he conducted. Among the musicals were Gipsy Love, Goodnight Vienna, Bandroom no. 5, Alan the Bold, and The Willow Pattern Plate; among the operas were La bohème, Il trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor and Carmen; and among the ballets were The Haunted Ballroom, Giselle, Swan Lake, Les Sylphides, and Bolero.

Swanson conducted about 200 performances for the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society, among them Trial by Jury, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado.

In 1964, Swanson toured the Cape Province with three one-act operas: Telemann’s Pimpinone, Menotti’s The Telephone, and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Suzanna’s Secret. In 1965, he did a tour of the Western Cape with Mozart’s Così fan tutte from 16 August to 24 September.


The Beggar's Opera theatre programme, 1965.

Sjoerd Alkema. 2012. "Conductors of the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra, 1914-1965: a historical perspective". University of Cape Town. Unpublished PhD thesis.

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