Swan Song

It is difficult to have an original thought, idea, or theory. Conventional wisdom says that very few people ever think about anything deeper than what they are going to wear or that which their job requires. In spite of that I have found that almost every time I think I have an original answer to one of life’s question, someone has been there before me. And this is only counting those things that have been written. Most people never have the opportunity to put their reflections into print.

When I was a boy living in the country, in the summertime, I sometimes slept on a bed outside the house. Looking up, I could see only the fluid blackness of the night sky, pierced by millions of tiny lights. The Milky Way arched over me in a silvery luminescence. All this was a source of awe to an ignorant country boy, and yet I somehow felt at one with its essence. Lying quietly, my ear pressing against the thin mattress upon which I lay, I fancied I could hear music. It was faint but I believed it was coming from outside me and not just the sound of blood rushing through my head. Not like putting your ear to a seashell and hearing the roar of the sea, but rather the sound of the universe being picked up by the springs of my bed like a radio antenna. There was no melody such as I was accustomed to hearing at church or from the dry cell radio we owned, but it was as if the universe was harmonizing in a quiet ethereal peace,

Last week I spoke of this to our son and he said Pythagoras was away ahead of me. I asked him if he had an equation. H said that I should look it up. Here is what I found. After more than two thousand years his exact beliefs and equations are not completely clear, but it is apparent he believed all the universe resonated to some musical definition.

I quote this from a treatise not attributable. “The Pythagoreans believed that everything that existed had a voice and that all creation was eternally singing praises to their Creator. Man fails to hear these divine melodies because his soul is enmeshed in the delusion of material existence. When he liberates himself from the bondage of the lower world with its sense limitation the music of the spheres will again be audible as it was in the golden age. Harmony recognizes harmony and when the soul regains its true estate it will not only hear the celestial choir but join with it in an everlasting anthem of praise to the eternal Good controlling an infinite number of parts and conditions of being.”

It seems he equated harmony in musical terms with good and disharmony with evil, perhaps a universe infinitely beautiful built on a basis of infinitely beautiful music. It is interesting to note that many people who have had near death experiences comment on the beauty of the music they heard. And it is common knowledge that the popular music of these days brings up more of a feeling of half naked warriors dancing to the beat of a tom-tom around a pot of boiling missionaries than it does of sweet uplifting emotions associated with the old hymns. This very fact is bringing the disharmony of which Pythagoras spoke into our churches and, I believe, hastening the deterioration of our Christian heritage.

But, moving on to a corollary of the idea of cosmic music heard only in the heavenly precincts is the fact that in many instances a person, animal, or vegetable will do its best work just before dying: an apple tree producing a bumper crop just before it withers and dies, a horse running its fastest race, or a singer surpassing all previous performances.

Everyone is familiar with the expression, “Swan Song.” It derives from a legend about a swan, which was genetically mute all its life, and yet sang a beautiful melody just before dying. It is, presumably only a legend but has struck a responsive chord in humanity, presupposing that the proximity in time to the ethereal beauty of the afterlife.

Orlando Gibbon’s madrigal begins:

The silver swan, who living had no note

When death approached, unlocked her silent throat.

And Tennyson wrote as if he had personal knowledge:

The wild swan’s death hymn took the soul

Of that waste place with joy

Hidden in sorrow at first to the ear

The warble was low, and full and clear,

But anon her awful jubilant voice,

With a music strange and manifold

Flow’d forth on a carol free and bold:

As when a mighty people rejoice

With sshawms, and with cymbals, and harps of gold.

Twice it is recorded in the gospels that after the twelve finished the “last supper” they sang a hymn and went out and the Christ then performed the greatest act in the history of the world as he died for it. The Bible says that He was mute (like the swan) before his accusers, but went on to sing a deathless song that has resonated down through the centuries.


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