About this work
At the urging of Dr. Philip Sherrard (the friend and scholar of Byzantine culture who would eventually provide the libretto for the composer's long-awaited opera Mary of Egypt), John Tavener agreed in 1987 to compose a companion piece to his extremely successful choral work The Lamb, which had been featured in the 1982 Christmas Eve broadcast from King's College of the traditional "Nine Lessons and Carols." Like that of The Lamb, the text that Dr. Sherrard wanted Tavener to set was a poem by William Blake, "The Tiger." Published as part of Blake's 1797 collection Songs of Experience, the text stood in striking contrast to the earlier poem (The Lamb had appeared in Songs of Innocence), and even referred to it directly and cleverly. In gratitude for the suggestion, Tavener dedicated his musical setting of The Tiger to Dr. Sherrard on the occasion of the latter's 65th birthday.
Tavener employed many of the compositional techniques in The Tiger that appeared in The Lamb. Of particular importance are the uses of pedal tones and musical palindromes. The texture begins as two lines, mirror images of each other, that create inverted contours above a drone; certainly both Sherrard and Tavener immediately recognized how well the eponymous feline's "fearful symmetry" would lend itself to Tavener's musical mirror techniques. Tavener was fascinated with symmetry, and many of his pieces employ the "magic square." In this figure, familiar to early Christians, the letters of five five-letter words are aligned in a grid so that the same phrase-- "Sator Arepo tenet opera rotas" ("The sower Arepo possesses the wheels of his work") -- appears whether the grid is read forward, backward, horizontally, or vertically. Tavener found the square in Hans Moldenhaur's book on Webern, and saw a simpler application of the phenomenon than Webern's twelve-tone method: since the six words in the palindrome utilize a total of eight letters, Tavener could assign each letter a pitch (including an octave for the eighth pitch, which lay at the center of the palindromic grid).
With each subsequent verse, the texture becomes thicker as the voices enter in increasingly staggered imitation. The landscape is transformed from one mirrored in a single pane into a multifaceted array as viewed through a kaleidoscope. Finally at the end of verse five, Tavener answers Blake's reference to the poem The Lamb with a musical allusion to his own setting of the same poem. The final verse that follows is even more hushed and sparse than the opening verse, leaving an aura that is at once awed, reverent, and fearful.