The flight of the swan

for flute & cello soli, SATB
6 mins.

Programme notes

The flight of the Swan is a setting for SATB choir, flute and cello of a Latin poem from the collection originally in the abbey of St Martial in Limoges. The poem, which dates from the ninth or tenth century, was set to plainchant and intended as a Sequence – a free composition interpolated in the Mass between the Gradual and the Gospel. Sequences became popular in the middle ages, and a few (such as the Dies iraeand Stabat mater) survived in liturgical use until recently. It is an allegorical ballad, written in curious but vivid Latin, which tells of a swan flying across an ocean. Battered by huge waves and beset by hunger and fear, it flies off course and loses its bearings because the stars by which it navigates (an astonishing piece of scientific prescience) are hidden by stormclouds. But the swan struggles bravely on, and eventually dawn breaks, the clouds part, and it regains confidence and soars up into the open sky, its wings beating in steady rhythm. Eventually it lands at its destination, to general rejoicing.

The text survives with its original plainchant setting in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. I have not used the plainchant – partly because I was unable to decipher it accurately, but mainly because I wanted to make my own setting. The poem is included in volume seven of the Analecta hymnica, published in Leipzig in 1889, which contains the entire St Martial collection. I have made a few cuts for the mpurpose of my setting, which lasts about six minutes.

The flight of the swan was commissioned by the Saint Cecilia Singers for their 50th anniversary concert in Gloucester cathedral on 24th April 1999, under their conductor Ian Ball. It was also included in A Garland for Linda – an anthology of choral pieces by nine contemporary composers (including Paul McCartney) which was compiled in 1999 as a tribute to and memorial of Linda McCartney, after her death in April 1998. This anthology has been performed all over the world, and in 2000 it was released on CD by EMI in a performance by the Joyful Company of Singers under their conductor Peter Broadbent, with Philippa Davies and Robert Cohen as the flute and cello soloists.

Giles Swayne 2009


A Garland for Linda
Joyful Company of Singers
Peter Broadbent (conductor)
Philippa Davies (flute)
Robert Cohen (cello)
ASV: 6539
The flight of the swan