The Silver Swan (song)
The Silver Swan is probably the most famous madrigal by Orlando Gibbons. It is scored for 5 voices (in most sources, soprano (S), alto (A), tenor (T), baritone (Bar) and bass (B), although some specify SSATB instead) and presents the legend that swans sing only just before their death (see swan song).
Gibbons's words for this madrigal were perhaps his own creation, though they were more likely written by his musical patron, Sir Christopher Hatton (b. circa 1579; d. 1619), who chose the texts for many of Gibbons's madrigals. (This piece may have been composed around 1611, at Hatton's home in Ely Place, in the Holborn district of London.) This madrigal's words are:
- The silver Swan, who, living, had no Note,
- when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
- Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
- thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
- "Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
- More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise."
The song was first published in Gibbons's First Set of Madrigals and Motets of 5 parts (1612). (Gibbons dedicated this collection to Hatton.)
Commenting on the musical form, Philip Ledger notes that "in common with the lute-song, and unlike any true madrigal, it has two musical sections, the second one repeated, and new words are provided for this repeat".
Gibbons's last line has been taken as a comment on the demise of the English madrigal form or, more generally, on the loss of the late Elizabethan musical tradition.
Other settings of the poem
The words to this madrigal have been set to music by the following composers:
- Gary Bachlund (1966), for a cappella SATB chorus.
- Garth Baxter, from Three Madrigals (for voice and guitar or SATB).
- John Musto (1987), from Canzonettas for high voice or medium voice and piano.
- Ned Rorem (1949), for high voice and piano.
- Philip Ledger (editor), The Oxford Book of English Madrigals, Oxford University Press: 1978, with co-issued recording by Pro Cantione Antiqua.
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