Commissioned by the International Forum for Contemporary Choir Music Rotenburg (Wümme)

  • SSAATTBB with divisi
  • 15 min
  • William Blake
  • English

Programme Note

Giles Swayne: The Tiger

Blake's poem is a mysterious vision of the awesome power and beauty of life, and an attempt to grasp the mystery of its origins; it also hints at the forces of evil and is ironically sceptical of conventional Christianity:

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

It is significant that all six stanzas are cast in the form of questions. The poem first appeared in 1794, at the centre of a decade which was probably the most intensely questioning moment of European history. Blake was not only a visionary and mystic, but also a progressive thinker, much influenced by Rousseau and the ideas which led to and flowed from the French revolution - which had happened only five years before. This passage from his poem The French Revolution is as startling now as it was when it appeared in 1791:

On pestilent vapours around him flow frequent spectres of religious men, weeping
In winds; driven out of the abbeys, their naked souls shiver in keen open air,
Driven out by the fiery cloud of Voltaire, and thund'rous rocks of Rousseau,
They dash like foam against the ridges of the army, uttering a faint feeble cry.

My setting of The Tiger was written in September 1995, and first performed in Strasbourg on October 2nd by the National Youth Chamber Choir under their conductor, Michael Brewer. It is scored for nine-part choir (SSSAATTBB) and six solo voices (SSSATB) and lasts about fifteen minutes. It is an exploration of the poem, rather than a straightforward setting. I have incorporated some of Blake's discarded lines; there was a whole stanza between stanzas three and four which he rejected. Stanza three ends:

And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

The missing stanza continues:

Could fetch it from the furnace deep
And in thy horrid ribs dare steep?

I think Blake disliked the assonance between beat/feet and deep/steep, and so rejected the stanza, making utter (but resonant) nonsense of the ending of the third stanza. I have restored the couplet, but left out the offending word 'deep'; so the text here runs as follows:

And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand, and what dread feet
Could fetch it from the furnace?
In what clay and in what mould
Were thy eyes of fury rolled?

I have also set the first couplet of the second stanza in French, Italian, German and Spanish, as a way of getting under the skin of the poem and inside its meaning. Blake's forests of the night brought to mind the equally symbolic dark wood at the opening of Dante's Inferno, so I inserted the first three lines, as an additional slant:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita.

At the centre of the piece is a compressed, unison setting of the entire poem (except for stanza five) which I have extracted as a shorter version (two-minute) version called The Tiglet.

The Tiger is dedicated to Fiona Southey, who is a dedicated and experienced music publisher, and a wonderful friend. I owe her more than she knows.

© 1995 Giles Swayne