Swan Song

led zeppelin

The swan song 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 sing a beautiful song just before their 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 BCE, and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.

In Greek mythology, the swan was a bird consecrated to Apollo and was therefore considered a symbol of harmony and beauty.

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. There is a subsequent reference in Aeschylus’ ‘Agamemnon’ from 458 BCE. 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. Furthermore, Aristotle noted in his ‘History of Animals’ that swans ‘are musical, and sing chiefly at the approach of death.’ By the third century BCE the belief had become a proverb.

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.’ The swan was also described as a singer in the works of the poets Virgil and Martial.

The most familiar European swan, the mute swan, although not actually mute, is known neither for musicality nor to vocalize as it dies. It is called the mute swan because it lacks a bugling call, but is capable of making sounds by honking, grunting, and hissing. This has led some to criticize swan song beliefs since antiquity, one of the earliest being Pliny the Elder: in CE 77, ‘Natural History’ states: ‘observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false.’

However, the whooper swan, 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. 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.’

Chaucer wrote of ‘The Ialous swan, ayens his deth that singeth.’ Leonardo da Vinci noted ‘The swan is white without spot, and it sings sweetly as it dies, that song ending its life.’ 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.’ Similarly, in ‘Othello,’ the dying Emilia exclaims, ‘I will play the swan, / And die in music.’

‘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. 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. The band Led Zeppelin’s record label for the second half of their career was Swan Song Records.

‘Swan song’ has become an idiom referring to a final theatrical or dramatic appearance, or any final work or accomplishment. For example, an athlete that wins a championship or breaks records in their final season are sometimes said to have had a ‘swan song season.’ For example, Derek Jeter’s walk-off hit in his final game at Yankee Stadium, Peyton Manning winning the Super Bowl in his last season, and Kobe Bryant scoring 60 points in his final game.

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