Orlando Gibbons Silver Swan

The Silver Swan

The Silver Swan – The Ultimate Swan Song Ever Written

Probably the most recorded and the most performed Orlando Gibbons madrigal is the famous song The Silver Swan. Scored for 5 voices – soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass The Silver Swan  succinctly encapsulates the legend of the Swan Song – that swans only sing just before they die.

Gibbons’s musical patron, Sir Christopher Hatton (b. circa 1579; d. 1619), is the top candidate for author to the words as he chose the texts for many of Gibbons’s madrigals. In all likelihood The Silver Swan was composed around 1611, at Hatton’s home in Ely Place, in the Holborn district of London.

The Silver Swan who, living, had no note,
When death approach’d, unlock’d her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung her first and last, And sung 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 in 1612 which he dedicated to Sir Christopher 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”.

One can’t help getting the feeling that Gibbons’s last line is a comment on the demise of the English madrigal form and the loss of the late Elizabethan musical tradition – which is exactly what was happening at the time.

Though composed as a madrigal, The Silver Swan is, in modern times, often performed as either a song for chamber choir or a song for soprano and viol consort.

The words to this madrigal have also been set to music by the following 20th Century composers: Ned Rorem, Gary Bachlund, Garth Baxter, John Musto.

The extraordinary Silver Swan of the Bowes Museum in County Durham for some is linked to Orlando Gibbons wonderful song. The physical Silver Swan however dates from 1773 some 160 years later. This year – 2017 – The Silver Swan will be on exhibition at the Science Museum, make sure you find out when it will be operated, because at Bowes they are only permitted to run it once a day.  Despite having had 2 refurbishments, it is still a very fragile automaton, and the ‘performance’ only lasts 32 seconds.  It is also a bit strange in that the Swan appears to eat a fish – not what Swans do, but then in the 1770s they probably didn’t realise that.  There used to be 16 tunes to it, but that was reduced to 8 in one refurbishment (one of them duplicated – no one knows why).  The tunes were based on the peals of bells in Wren’s churches near Merlin’s workshops.  You hear a different tune each time it’s operated.

The Silver Swan can be seen in the Science Museum’s Robots exhibition from 8 February 2017 – 23 March 2017, it will then return to The Bowes Museum in County Durham.

Orlando Gibbons – Almighty and Everlasting God

Orlando Gibbons- Almighty and Everlasting God
The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford
Bill Ives director
Album: With a merrie Noyse, Second Service and Anthems

Sir James Galway has said that Gibbons’s music is sad. Certainly Orlando Gibbons was a master of the darker emotions. However his emotional range is extensive and in Almighty and Everlasting God we hear, experience and feel some of the deep love, awe and magnificence of the mind of one of England’s greatest composers.

Originally published in 1641 the text comes from the collect for the Third Sunday after Epiphany

Almighty and everlasting God,
mercifully look upon our infirmities,
and in all our dangers and necessities
stretch forth thy right hand to help and defend us,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Orlando Gibbons Quote

Orlando Gibbons Quote

It is proportion that beautifies everything,
the whole universe consists of it,
and music is measured by it.

Orlando Gibbons was one of the last great medieval polyphonic composers in England. Growing up in a family known for their music lead Orlando to a career as both a keyboard master and composer.

Toward the end of his life, he also mastered the organ. In 1622, he was given the title of doctor of music and played at the funeral service of King James I.

Gibbons allegedly died after collapsing during a performance at Canterbury Cathedral. He was buried in the same Cathedral.

Glenn Gould

Gould and Gibbons

Glen Gould claims Orlando Gibbons as favourite composer

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould – a devotee of Orlando Gibbons music

The great Canadian 20th Century pianist Glen Gould claimed that Orlando Gibbons was his favourite composer.

Many find it hard to accept that he would put Gibbons above Bach whom he so clearly loved. But let’s look at some of the reasons he may have made that choice.

First – to really understand Gibbons keyboard works it pays to listen to them straight through. Not something that can be done with Bach as there is simply too much of it to digest in one sitting. But Gibbons leaves us 45 delicious pieces with a combined listening time of around an hour and a half.

It is in this listening – that the scale and scope of Gibbons work can be most easily fathomed.

Secondly, how is he viewed by those who play his work: Piano legend Glenn Gould, who championed Gibbons’s music, stated that Orlando Gibbons was his favorite composer. Talking about Gibbon’s hymns and anthems Gould said: “ever since my teen-age years this music … has moved me more deeply than any other sound experience I can think of.”

He even had the audacity to compare Gibbons to the mighty composers  Beethoven and Webern:

“…despite the requisite quota of scales and shakes in such half-hearted virtuoso vehicles as the Salisbury Galliard, one is never quite able to counter the impression of music of supreme beauty that lacks its ideal means of reproduction. Like Beethoven in his last quartets, or Webern at almost any time, Gibbons is an artist of such intractable commitment that, in the keyboard field, at least, his works work better in one’s memory, or on paper, than they ever can through the intercession of a sounding-board.”

Fish Like Gibbons

It is a little known fact that Orlando Gibbons was a dedicated angler… possibly. OK so I have no evidence for this (yet) but fishing was extremely widespread in the 16th and 17th Centuries and Gibbons lived in both Oxford and Cambridge which both had well stocked rivers (The Charwell and The Cam) back in the day.

Test your skills with a line in our challenging little game of Fish like Gibbons. With your natural musical talents, dextrous hand eye coordination and abilities with strings it should be as easy as the Trout Quintet or The Silver Swan.



Musical Giant of the Early 17th Century

Orlando Gibbons is Englands early 17th Century musically versatile genius.  Gibbons wrote a large quantity of keyboard works, including some thirty fantasias for viols, numerous madrigals including his legendary “The Silver Swan”, and many popular verse anthems.

His complete mastery of counterpoint along with an extraordinary talent for melody distinguish much of his choral music.

Favourite composer of the mighty 20th Century pianist, Glenn Gould, Gibbons work sounds simultaneously ancient and contemporary.