Since starting my internship with All Classical Portland, I have been given every opportunity to learn new things about classical music, radio, and nonprofit organizations. In addition to learning new skills at ACP, my love of writing has never been overlooked here, and I have been able to write a handful of blogs for All Classical Portland’s website thus combining two things I am passionate about: writing and music. As my time with ACP comes to an end, it’s time for one last blog for the station, my “Swan Song”, if you will, which is exactly what my final blog post is about: the origin of the term Swan Song, as well as several famous swan song performances throughout history.
A swan song is a metaphor used to refer to a final gesture before retirement. The term originated in ancient Greek culture, and its first reference is found in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which was written in 458 BC. The remark was made when Cassandra dies, “after singing her last death-laden lament like a swan.” Since then, it has been used frequently throughout literature from the works of Aesop to those of Tennyson.
It was rumored that swans live a silent existence until the time of their death, when, with their last breath, they would sing a beautiful song. Plato credited Socrates for remarking on the beautiful, finale song of the swan as being sung, “merrily.” It’s a romantic notion, however, if you’ve ever met a swan, seen one in a park, witnessed a flock making its migratory trek, or been attacked by a protective mother swan while windsurfing, you may be well aware that the birds are anything but quiet. In fact, of all the adjectives used to describe their song, “beautiful” is probably one of the least likely to be employed.
(Image credited: Daily Mail)
A perfect example of a swan song in metaphorical context is Franz Schubert’s Schwanengesang; literally translated into “Swan Song”, Schwanengesang is a collection of fourteen pieces based on the poetry of the German poet, Heinrich Heine. Schubert worked on the music just before he died, and it was published posthumously. The music itself expresses emotions full of joy, remorse, yearning, loss, and love, thus marking the end of the remarkable career of Franz Schubert.
One of the biggest operatic divas of the late 19th century was Australian soprano, Nellie Melba. Dame Nellie Melba demonstrated her own take on a swan song performance towards the end of her career when she announced her departure from grand opera in Australia in 1924. Her farewell tour lasted a healthy four-year period until 1928, when she moved to Europe and toured off and on again for the remainder of her life. Her lengthy farewell tour reflected her eccentric career, and inspired the Australian turn-of-phrase, “more farewells than Dame Nellie Melba.”
On January 8, 2016, David Bowie released his final album, Blackstar. Two days later, the celebrated rock star lost his battle with cancer and sent fans reeling. Immediately, the world recognized Blackstar for what it is: a farewell album. The album articulates Bowie’s sincere gratitude towards his fans and reflects on his avant-garde career. Blackstar is both an unequivocal Rock & Roll swan song and a sincere parting gift.
This past April, the New York Times published an article titled, “The Diva Departs: Renée Fleming’s Farewell to Opera.” This exaggerated title implied that Ms. Fleming was planning to retire from her extensive career, when, in truth, she was merely retiring from one of her many operatic roles, that of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Ms. Fleming made sure to correct the misunderstanding, and has assured numerous sources that she is not retiring from opera, merely exploring additional avenues. Reneé Fleming’s Swan Song performance of Der Rosenkavalier in May did not signify her retirement; instead, it marked a shift in her career focus.
This article is not marking my retirement from writing by any means; however, it does mark my departure from All Classical Portland. This station has provided me with memories that I will always cherish, and experience that I will call on throughout future endeavors.