The Tiger

15 mins.

Programme notes

Blake’s poem The Tiger is a vision of the awesome 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?

All six stanzas are cast in the form of questions. The poem first appeared in 1794, at the heart of a decade which was the most intensely questioning moment of European history. Blake was not only a visionary, but also a progressive thinker much influenced by Rousseau and the ideas associated with 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 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 sense that Blake disliked the assonance between beat/feetand deep/steep and rejected the stanza for this reason, making complete (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 ironically under the skin of the poem. 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 of that poem, 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 (but without stanza five) which I have extracted as a shorter version called The Tiglet.

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

Giles Swayne 1995 (revised 2008)


Swayne: Choral Works
Stephen Cleobury (conductor)
BBC Singers
David Goode (organ)
Philippa Davies (flute)
Classics: COLL15312
Three Shakespeare songs
Magnificat I
Missa Tiburtina
Nunc dimittis I
O magnum mysterium
Veni creator II
The Tiger
Ophelia drowning
Missa brevissima