John Tavener: The Lamb

Written in 1979 by John Tavener using the text by the poet William Blake. The Lamb is a sacred song performed mainly at Christmas. The subject of the setting is Jesus who is often referred to as the lamb of God in the Bible.

Structure

In bars 1 to 10, the first verse of the poem is sung and followed by the second verse in bars 11 to 20. The music is still in strophic form, despite Tavener using a fuller vocal texture in the second verse. The melody heard in bars 1 to 2 returns in bars 7 to 10, giving the impression that verse one is in ternary form - A-B-A1 - section B is formed by bars 3-6. This is then repeated in verse 2.

Instrumentation

The piece is written for four-part choir SATB - soprano, alto, tenor, bass.

Tempo, rhythm and metre

The song is unusual as there is no time signature and the bar lines are only there to mark the ends of the poem stanzas. Some bars have a feeling of 4/4 but others are much freer. Tavener instructs that the rhythm must be guided by the words and not by a regular pulse which would normally be imposed on those words. The word setting is mostly syllabic although occasionally two notes are slurred together to reinforce the important words.

The extract shows the musical idea has no regular time signature.

For the line 'who made thee?', Tavener uses rhythmic augmentation by doubling the note values. As a result, the music appears to be slowing in tempo before being marked a tempo 'moving forward'.

Harmony, tonality, texture and melody

The lyric line begining with 'an innocent little lamb' is conveyed harmonically by using dissonance. For example, an A minor chord with an added ninth is heard on the lyric 'such', 'all', 'Lamb' and 'know' in bars 7 to 10. In addition, all four chords are marked as tenuto in bars 17 to 20.

The opening bar has a monophonic texture and uses four notes from the G major scale. This could be Tavener’s way of expressing a childlike sense of innocence. The entire work is constructed from this opening bar.

The second bar has a two-part homophonic texture due to the addition of the altos.