Saint-Saens’ swan is a familiar friend. Composed in February 1886 and never out of the repertoire since. The cello glides serenely on its way, with the piano suggesting something of the paddling that goes on underneath. The piece is simply conceived and executed; but the comments for the two YouTube clips below bear witness to the extraordinary resonance of the piece. I give you just one, verbatim. The unusual spelling and syntax seem to me to add to the poignancy: “I live with depression for the last 2 years and this music, in this video is the only thing that has made me cry of hapiness. i feel fine and i feel grateful.”
Yo-yo Ma and Kathryn Stott on YouTube.
And for a different take, Mischa Maisky’s clip has two things to recommend it: (a) Mischa Maisky’s interpretation – more introverted than Yo-Yo Ma; and (b) the extraordinarily urbane Roger Moore reading a poem I had never heard before on YouTube.
Orlando Gibbons’ madrigal “The Silver Swan” has words as beautiful as any ever written about the bird:
The silver Swan, who, living, had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast against 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.
It is not known whether the words were Gibbons’ own, or written by his patron, Sir Christopher Hatton (1581-1619). The madrigal was first published in 1612 and is often thought to be a comment on the demise of the Elizabethan madrigal tradition.
The Cambridge Singers do it justice here on YouTube.
The Tallis Singers are a little more astringent but it works well here on YouTube.
In the early years of the last century Sibelius kept in musical touch by making frequent journeys to central Europe where he would meet and commune with the mainstream traditions. Yet he felt increasingly isolated and clear that he was undertaking an individual musical journey, set apart from the mainstream both geographically and musically. The First World War ended the possibility of European travel and confirmed his isolation. It coincided (and probably contributed to) a profound depression as he questioned whether his music had any future. (Does any of this sound familiar?) And it was in this state of depression that the Fifth Symphony was born. The glory of the work is the last movement with its two main themes, one of which soars serenely over the swinging motif that is announced by the horns and trumpets. Sibelius recorded in his diaries how this theme came to him on 21st April 1915:
“Today at ten to eleven I saw sixteen swans. One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon. Their call the same woodwind type as that of cranes, but without tremolo. The swan-call closer to the trumpet, although it’s obviously a sarrusophone sound. A low refrain reminiscent of a small child crying. Nature mysticism and life’s angst! The Fifth Symphony’s finale-theme.”
You will probably have your favourite recording already. The first I owned was Karajan’s glowing account with the Berliners that has the swans soaring high toward the horizon. Here is the complete symphony. The last movement starts at 22.39; the swans emerge at about 24.17, followed by one of the great key changes in music at 24.39.
You can buy it with Nos 6 and 7 (his greatest symphony, for my money, in one great arch of music) on Amazon.
Or, for a different view, that great Sibelian, Sir John Barbirolli’s set of the symphonies with the Halle has a brilliant No. 5 and possibly the most thrilling No 2 ever recorded. Well worth listening to them straight through in order to understand Sibelius’ development as a composer available on Amazon.
Barbirolli also did a famous recording with the RPO of Nos. 2 and 5. Slightly dated sound, nothing dated about the interpretation here on Amazon.
Or there are about 40 others to choose from…..
So, there are three (or should it be 18) swans to choose from. With apologies to Tchaikovsky for leaving him out.
by Jeremy Stuart-Smith