This is an example of how small things can become big. The talks from one mouth to the other are often a little exaggerated. The intent of the talk changes from one person to another, and that is what happened here. The story dates back around 2000 years…
This is based on the age-old genesis that the swans sang at the time of their death. It is not even technically true, but there are instances that prove it to be true.
Story of the Whooper Swan
As the name suggests, the Whooper Swan makes some bizarre honking sounds. This swan is also known to make sounds when it dies. The bird has an elongated tracheal loop, and at the time of death, the air passes through it. It’s because the lungs expel the last of air through it, and so the sound is made. The sound can be described as “a clarionet when blown by a novice in music”, well, the sound is not that melodious, but at least it is the sound made upon death. Whooper Swan is found in Greece, and hence we can speculate that ancient Greeks might have heard the dying sounds of the bird. They might have exaggerated that all swans sing at the time of death, which gave birth to the legend of Swan Song.
The Aesop’s fables – The swan and the goose
In the sixth century BC, a rich man bought a swan and a goose. He kept one to feed on and another for the sake of its song. When it was time to kill the goose for the meal, the cook went to get one of them. He accidentally picked the swan. The swan was threatened by death, it started to sing, and made itself known for the particular sound.
There is no trace left for the Aesop’s Fables as all of them have been lost. His stories are told by people, but none of his writings have survived to date. Many fables are mostly falsely credited to him, and coming from a storyteller, all stories might be fiction. But since then, the notion of swan singing has been used by many poets.
Now that the notion was out there and that too for so long, many people tried to figure if the swan really sang on its death. Like in the first century AD, Pliny The Elder wrote in his landmark Natural History, “Observation shows that the story that the dying swan sings is false, judging from experience…”
In the sixteenth century, Shakespeare wrote, “Let music sound while he doth make his choice; then, if he loses, he makes a swan-like end, Fading in music.” in his book, the Merchant of Venice.
Leonardo da Vinci was also caught in the notion, and he noted that The swan is white without spot, and it sings sweetly as it dies, that song ending its life.
The origin of the expression “swan song”
George Phillip Telemann held a concert in 1733 and named it German Schwanengesang. Schwanengesan means Swan Song in English, and that is where the expression has been borrowed from. The English phrase thus appeared in prints a couple of decades later in the form of a song by Scottish Priest John Willson.
Swan Song has been a myth, an exaggeration, and fiction over the years, but the notion continues. People still refer to the last performance as the swan song.