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.

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