Swan song

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For other uses, see Swan song (disambiguation).
"The singing swan" (1655) by Reinier van Persijn.

The swan song (in ancient Greek: κύκνειον ᾆσμα) is a metaphorical phrase for a final gesture, effort, or performance given just before death or retirement. The phrase refers to an ancient belief that swans (Cygnus spp.) sing a beautiful song in the moment just before death, having been silent (or alternatively, not so musical) during most of their lifetime. This belief, whose basis in actuality is long-debated, had become proverbial in Ancient Greece by the 3rd century BC, and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.

Origin and description[edit]

In Greek mythology, the swan was a bird consecrated to Apollo, and it was therefore considered a symbol of harmony and beauty and its limited capabilities as a singer were sublimated to those of songbirds.

Aesop's fable of "The Swan and the Goose" incorporates the swan song legend as saving its life when it was caught by mistake instead of the goose but was recognized by its song.[1] There is a subsequent reference in Aeschylus' Agamemnon from 458 BC. In that play, Clytemnestra compares the dead Cassandra to a swan who has "sung her last final lament". Plato's Phaedo records Socrates saying that, although swans sing in early life, they do not do so as beautifully as before they die. Aristotle also noted that swans "are musical, and sing chiefly at the approach of death". By the third century BC the belief had become a proverb.[2][3]

Ovid mentions it in "The Story of Picus and Canens": "There, she poured out her words of grief, tearfully, in faint tones, in harmony with sadness, just as the swan sings once, in dying, its own funeral song."[4] The swan was also described as a singer in the works of the poets Virgil and Martial.[citation needed]


The most familiar European swan, the mute swan (Cygnus olor), although not actually mute, is neither known for musicality nor to vocalize as it dies. This has led some to criticize swan song beliefs since antiquity, one of the earliest[5] being Pliny the Elder: in 77 AD, Natural History (book 10, chapter xxxii: olorum morte narratur flebilis cantus, falso, ut arbitror, aliquot experimentis), states: "observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false." Peterson et al. note that Cygnus olor is "not mute but lacks bugling call, merely honking, grunting, and hissing on occasion."[6]

However, the whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus), a winter visitor to parts of the eastern Mediterranean, does possess a 'bugling' call, and has been noted for issuing a drawn-out series of notes as its lungs collapse upon expiry, both being a consequence of an additional tracheal loop within its sternum. This was proposed by naturalist Peter Pallas as the basis for the legend. Both mute and whooper swans appear to be represented in ancient Greek and Egyptian art.[3][5]

The whooper swan's nearest relatives, the trumpeter and tundra swans, share its musical tracheal loop. Zoologist D.G. Elliot reported in 1898 that a tundra swan he had shot and wounded in flight began a long glide down whilst issuing a series of "plaintive and musical" notes that "sounded at times like the soft running of the notes of an octave".[7]

Post-classical cultural references[edit]

Chaucer wrote of "The Ialous swan, ayens his deth that singeth."[8] Leonardo da Vinci noted "The swan is white without spot, and it sings sweetly as it dies, that song ending its life."[9]

In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Portia exclaims "Let music sound while he doth make his choice; Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, Fading in music."[10]

The well-known Orlando Gibbons madrigal "The Silver Swan" states the legend thus:

"The Swan Song" ("Schwanengesang") is the nickname of the 1733 Baroque Concerto written by Georg Philipp Telemann: Concerto in D minor for oboe, strings and continuo.[11] The concerto of Telemann begins with a sad part (adagio) later a glad part (allegro), the singing of the swan itself, another sad part (death), and finally a hopeful end.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English phrase "swan song" or "swan-song" borrows from the German schwanen(ge)sang or schwanenlied.[12] The Scottish cleric John Willison, in one of his Scripture Sermons, 1747, proposes a verse from Psalm 48 as a "swan-song" for the faithful.[13]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge made comic use of the legend when he quipped ironically:

Tennyson's poem "The Dying Swan"[14] is a poetic evocation of the beauty of the supposed song and so full of detail as to imply that he had actually heard it:

Tennyson's poem was an inspiration for the ballet The Dying Swan created for Anna Pavlova in 1905 and danced to the music of Le cygne by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns.[15]


By extension, "swan song" has become an idiom referring to a final theatrical or dramatic appearance, or any final work or accomplishment.[16]


  1. ^ Aesop (1998). The Complete Fables. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044649-4. , p.127
  2. ^ Arnott, W. Geoffrey (October 1977). "Swan Songs". Greece & Rome 24 (2): 149–153. JSTOR 642700. 
  3. ^ a b Brazil, Mark (2003). The Whooper Swan. T & A D Poyser. ISBN 978-0-7136-6570-3.  pp. 64-65. (Online version)
  4. ^ Ovid. "Metamorphoses (Kline) 14, the Ovid Collection, Univ. of Virginia E-Text Center; Bk XIV:320–396: The transformation of Picus". University of Virginia. 
  5. ^ a b Arnott, W. Geoffrey (2007). Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge. ISBN 0-203-94662-6.  pp. 182-184. (Online version)
  6. ^ Peterson, Roger Tory, Guy Mountfort, P. A. D. Hollum, P. A. D. Hollom (2001). A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. Houghton Mifflin Field Guides. ISBN 0-618-16675-0. , p. 49
  7. ^ Johnsgard, Paul A. (January 2013). "The Swans of Nebraska". Prairie Fire (USA). Retrieved 21 January 2013. 
  8. ^ Skeat, Walter W. (1896). Chaucer: the Minor Poems. Clarendon Press. , p. 86 (Online version)
  9. ^ da Vinci, Leonardo. The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Complete. Google.  ([1])
  10. ^ The Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 2
  11. ^ http://www.allmusic.com/album/georg-philipp-telemann-funeral-music-for-garlieb-sillem-mw0001799230
  12. ^ "swan, n.". Oxford English Dictionary. June 2011. Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  13. ^ "www.the-highway.com". Retrieved 3 August 2013. 
  14. ^ Tennyson, "The Dying Swan," The Early poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson (Project Gutenberg text), search on "shawm." This and other sources assert not merely that the swan sings, but that the song is beautiful.
  15. ^ Matthew Naughtin, Ballet Music: A Handbook, p.210
  16. ^ Oxford Dictionaries Online