When Finnish composer Jean Sibelius witnessed 16 swans taking flight on 21 April 1915, he described it as ‘one of the great experiences of my life’ in a diary entry. It even inspired the famous horn theme heard in the finale of his Fifth Symphony. This was not the first time he was inspired by the majestic bird: in 1895 he composed The Swan of Tuonela, an orchestral tone poem alluding to the Finnish Kalevala saga, and later he wrote incidental music for Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s ‘Fairy Drama’, Swanwhite. Nor was he the only composer to be inspired by the magnificent swan. We take a look at six of the best pieces…
1. Sibelius: Symphony No. 5 (third movement)
After his sighting of 16 swans in flight on 21 April 1915, Sibelius immediately sketched a musical themed based on the experience and incorporated it into his Fifth Symphony. The distinctive horn melody, heard after a tremolando string opening, recalls the majestic movement of the swans and the sounds of their calls.
2. Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela
Sibelius composed the orchestral tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela, in 1895 as part of his Lemminkäinen Suite, based on the Finnish literary epic Kalevala. The piece explores the gloomy World of Death depicted in the saga. It is a dark and lyrical work, the mournful voice of a lone swan carried by a cor anglais melody.
3. Gibbons: The Silver Swan
Sibelius isn’t the only composer to have honoured the regal swan with his music. English Renaissance composer Orlando Gibbons published a set of five-part madrigals and motets in 1612 and it included a choral work called The Silver Swan, which laments upon a swan’s death.
4. Saint-Saëns: The Swan
There aren’t many people who don’t recognise the heartrending melody of Saint-Saëns’s The Swan. The most well known piece from Carnival of the Animals (1886) – a ‘Grand zoological fantasy’ by Saint-Saëns with 14 movements, each representing a different creature – it is scored for cello and two pianos. While the lyrical cello line evokes a serenely gliding swan, swirling semi-quaver motifs in the piano parts seem to represent the swan’s busy feet beneath the water.
5. Orff: Carmina Burana (Olim lacus colueram)
In the second part ('In the Tavern') of his famous cantata Carmina Burana, Carl Orff depicts in music the suffering of a swan as it is roasted alive. The aria ‘Olim lacus colueram’ ('Once I lived on lakes') requires a tenor soloist to sing falsetto to demonstrate fully the fear and pain of the swan in its tormented final moments of life.
6. Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake
Tchaikovsky’s popular ballet telling the story of the princess Odette turned into a swan by the evil Sorcerer Von Rothbart contains some of his best-known music, including the famous Swan’s Theme that reoccurs throughout the work. It is in the second scene of the ballet that a prince – Siegfried, who has been celebrating his birthday at the palace – finds himself by a mysterious lake where he falls in love with the beautiful swan Odette. The ballet was commissioned by the Moscow Theatre and was the first of Tchaikovsky’s ballet’s to become part of the established repertoire.
• A guide to Jean Sibelius
• Six of the best: versions of 'Summertime'