ImageEarly music can be as hard a nut to crack for some as atonal music of the Schoenberg era – and for much the same reasons – a lack of harmonic anchor points and the resulting fluidity of rhythm and phrasing. Listening to some pieces from The Eton Choirbook (1500-1505) recently, I found it hard to distinguish one motet from another. Exactly when the transition point to a more harmonic approach occurred is hard to pinpoint, but almost exactly a century on, during the golden era of the madrigal, it has happened. The Silver Swan by Orlando Gibbons, presents no such difficulties. The words, probably by Gibbons himself, illustrate the “swan song” myth – that swans are mostly silent in life (or at least unmusical) until just before their death, when they sing a beautiful song. It’s a perfect subject for musical setting, and Gibbons makes the most of it.

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, Oh death come close mine eyes,
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

There are five interweaving, highly independent vocal parts, and while the top “cantus” line carries the main melody, the other parts are by no means subservient. The voices come neatly together for the cadence on the words “no note”, but immediately the lower three parts are off again with the words “when death approached”. They are literally illustrating the approach of death before the top two parts voice the same words. The emotional peak is reached in another anticipation – the rich harmonic sequence in the lower voices that underpins the words “Thus sang her first and last, and sang no more”. Here the harmonic rhythm speeds up to crotchet pace while the cantus reaches its highest point with a top G. There’s a juicy false relation as the top line gets to the word “against” (an Eb, or flattened sixth, replacing what would otherwise be the D in the chord of G major), and then the rich sequence is repeated for the final line – “More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.”

The English madrigal school flourished from the late 1580s and lasted into the 1620s, long after it had become unfashionable in the rest of Europe. But things were in decline by the time The Silver Swan was published in 1612, and it’s probably intended as a commentary on a dying tradition, with the last line a particularly biting commendation of the current generation of composers – though Gibbons himself was only in his thirties.