According to tradition, many ancient peoples believed that swans, creatures whose “voices” are not as melodious as those of other birds, burst into clear song when they felt death nearing.
The fifth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Socrates is said to have explained that this voice transformation occurred because the swans were rejoicing. They knew that they were sacred to the god Apollo and that at death they would return to Apollo, who was the god of music and song.
Chaucer writes of “The Ialous swan, ayens his deth that singeth.” and Leonardo da Vinci also noted “The swan is white without spot, and it sings sweetly as it dies, that song ending its life.”
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.”
Similarly, in Othello, the dying Emilia exclaims, “I will play the swan, / And die in music.”
European literary tradition borrowed this thought, and the last work of a performer or artists is often called a swan song.