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"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 the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is completely silent during its lifetime until the moment just before death, when it sings one beautiful song. The belief, now known to be incorrect, had become proverbial in Ancient Greece by the 3rd century BC, and was reiterated many times in later Western poetry and art.
The earliest known reference to the idea that swans sing one beautiful song before dying first appears in Aeschylus' Agamemnon from 458 BC. In the 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. By the third century BC the belief had become a proverb. The English phrase "swan song" or "swan-song" dates to the 19th century, and entered the language from the German Schwanen(ge)sang and Schwanenlied.
In reality, Mute Swans are not actually mute during life – they hiss – and they do not sing as they die. This folktale has been contested ever since antiquity: in 77 AD, Pliny the Elder provides the first surviving refutation in Natural History (book 10, chapter xxxii: olorum morte narratur flebilis cantus, falso, ut arbitror, aliquot experimentis), stating: "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."
Nevertheless, the folktale has remained so appealing that over the centuries it has continued to appear in various artistic works. Aesop's fable of "The Swan Mistaken for a Goose" alludes to it: "The swan, who had been caught by mistake instead of the goose, began to sing as a prelude to its own demise. His voice was recognized and the song saved his life." 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."
Chaucer wrote of "The Ialous swan, ayens his deth that singeth." 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."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge made comic use of this legend when he quipped ironically:
|“||Swans sing before they die— 't were no bad thing |
Should certain persons die before they sing.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (June 2011)|
By extension, "swan song" has become an idiom referring to a final theatrical or dramatic appearance, or any final work or accomplishment. It generally carries the connotation that the performer is aware that this is the last performance of his or her lifetime, and is expending everything in one magnificent final effort.
Agatha Christie's famous mystery novel And Then There Were None includes, as a plot device, a gramophone record titled "Swan Song." When played, it accuses the houseguests and servants of murders for which they were not punished for various reasons. The killer intends to punish the wicked as a final act.
Anton Chekhov's first play is a one-act sketch titled "Swan Song," which he wrote in 1887. It is about an actor and a prompter who find themselves locked inside a theatre late at night, discussing the actor's past in his career.
The DC Comics character the Pied Piper plays Queen's "The Show Must Go On" as his swan song, using his control over sound to destroy the entire planet Apokolips, while being trapped inside.