Zoapod 2: Tavener, Thelema and the Tyger (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Unsurprisingly, considering its origin as a song, there are many musical settings and adaptations of William Blake’s “The Tyger”, both classical and popular. The poem is probably only second to “Jerusalem” in terms of the number of versions that have been released in the last century.

2. The first arrangement of which I am aware was composed by Sir Graville Ransome Bantock in 1908, followed in 1909 by a piece for voice and piano by Alan Gray. In 1913, Clarence S. Hill set Blake’s words to music as part of his cycle Three Songs by Blake, and other arrangements where “The Tyger” forms part of a more extensive treatment of Blake’s verse include Solomon Pimsleur’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience from 1922, Benjamin Britten’s 1965 Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Theodor Hoffman’s The Lamb and the Tyger from the same year, followed over the next two decades by John Mitchell’s Visions from the Flame [1977], Hayg Boyadjian’s Song Cycle on Poems of William Blake [1978], William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience [1984], and, in 1986, Dmitry Smirnov’s Fearful Symmetry, as well as many more occasional pieces by various composers including Sir John Tavener, Trevor Jones, and Giles Swayne.

3. Of these versions (and many more), three are worth more discussion because they are part of a substantial relationship between the composer and Blake’s works. John Tavener demonstrates quite profoundly the ways a composer may engage with the philosophical and theological questions raised by the poem in his beautiful 1989 piece for an unaccompanied thirteen-part choir, which offers a response to Blake’s question “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”. The thrilling harmony of the singers (comprising five sopranos, two altos, three tenors, and three basses), resolves the tyger’s fearful symmetry into a grandiloquent testimony to the concord of God’s creation.


4. For Tavener’s Greek Orthodoxy, the answer to the terrible question which is underscored by what is usually interpreted as violent imagery within the poem is, rather, a resounding affirmation that interprets visions of furnaces and forging as “portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man” – yet not, perhaps, for man’s ears if he would but listen. Tavener’s remarkable achievement with his arrangement of “The Tyger” is to transform an often discordant, even furious, poem into a hymn to God’s glory that is serenely passionate: the composer’s response is a dialogue with Blake’s poem that transforms it into a work that seems almost compassionate. Like the best creative works that take Blake as a source of inspiration, its effect is to alter rather than simply reinforce the listener’s experience, expanding the horizon of expectations so that our interpretation of the poem is transformed.

5. Mike Westbrook’s Glad Day: Settings of the Poetry of William Blake [1999], combines pieces for a chamber orchestra choir with jazz, and a 2008 performance with vocalists Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton received considerable critical acclaim. Although I personally find his arrangement of “The Tyger and The Lamb” less affecting than that by Tavener, the album is particularly important as a testimony to Westbrook’s long involvement with Blake, the genesis of these renditions lying in his work as a composer with Adrian Mitchell on the 1971 play Tyger. This was followed by the music-drama Glad Day for Thames TV in 1975 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Blake’s birth, as well as a collection of musical settings of Blake’s verse, Bright as Fire, first performed in 1980 then again in 1997.

6. The Russian composer, Dmitry Nikolaevich Smirnov, who was born in Minsk and studied at the Moscow Conservatory, but has been resident in Britain since the early 1990s, has composed two operas based on the works of Blake, Tiriel and Thel, both of which were first performed in 1989, as well as the song cycles The Seasons [1979], based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches, Fearful Symmetry [1981], Songs of Love and Madness [1988], The Seven Angels of William Blake [1988], The Innocence of Experience [2001], and a ballet, Blake’s Pictures, composed between 1988 and 1992.

7. Turning to popular music, “The Tyger” has been at least, if not more, prevalent, with variants covering genres as diverse as country and folk (such as Greg Brown, Songs of Innocence and of Experience [1986] and Nick Harper on Smithereens [1998]), progressive/experimental rock (Tangerine Dream’s Tyger [1987] and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic’s Sonic Geology [1988]), Goth (Mephisto Waltz’s Immersion [1998]), techno/electronica (Dead Nine’s I Believe in Magic [2008]), and black/death metal (Thelema’s Fearful Symmetry [2008]). Several bands have taken their name from Blake’s poem, such as the Adelaide-based indie group Tyger, Tyger, and The Lamb and The Tyger from Gettysburg, whose MySpace page describes them as “liberal arts rock”. Occasionally Blake’s poem serves as an exit point for a song that interprets his text much more freely, as with Ian Astbury’s “Tyger” on Spirit\Light\Speed [1999] or the instrumental version of “The Tyger” on Sonic Geology

8. Generic conventions, of course, provide a clear context for many of the interpretations of these songs when they follow Blake’s lyrics closely. The Belarus band Thelema, for example, deliver what could be described as a conventionally classic exposition of a metal anthem that is the polar opposite of Tavener’s arrangement.


9. Comprising Alex Korshun on vocals and guitar, Stanislav Khodkov on lead guitar, Victor Sirtsov on bass, and Yuri Terebikov on drums, Thelema is one among countless examples of new acts using forums such as MySpace to reach an audience far beyond what once would have been available to them. Their interpretation of the creature as Satanic is certainly one that has been shared by various other commentators on Blake – in substance if not style.

10. Indeed, there is a long tradition of metal acts drawing on Blake, most notably Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, whose 1998 album The Chemical Wedding included a number of tracks drawn from Blake’s poetry, including “Jerusalem”, “Book of Thel”, and “Gates of Urizen”, as well as the Norwegian group Ulver who focussed on Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in the same year that Dickinson released Chemical Wedding. What is most fascinating about Thelema’s work is why this Belorussian group should be so influenced by a poet and painter long dead, so much so that their entire album is devoted to his work with tracks bearing titles from both famous and more esoteric Blakean texts, such as “The Crystal Cabinet” and “In a Myrtle Shade”, an allusion to Night Seven of The Four Zoas which, if nothing else, indicates that these young men have read deeply into Blake’s works, no doubt inspired by that diabolical poet who argued in The Marriage that “Without Contraries is no progression”.