John Tavener: The Lamb


Known for his incredible catalogue of sacred vocal works, John Tavener has been described as “having a very rare gift of being able to bring an audience to a deep silence.” Although Tavener is largely celebrated for his choral works, he is also known for his chamber works such as The Protecting Veil, which was composed for cello and strings. 

The Lamb was composed in 1982, and remains one of Tavener’s most treasured choral works. Shortly after completion, The Lamb was performed at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. The concert was broadcast on national TV, so the piece received international recognition very quickly. Often sung around Christmastime, The Lamb is sung by many choirs throughout the year due to its popularity with audiences and choirs alike. 

The Text

The text that Tavener used came from William Blake’s poem of the same name from the Songs of Innocence collection:

Little lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Gave thee life, and bid thee feed

By the stream and o’er the mead;

Gave thee clothing of delight,

Softest clothing, woolly, bright;

Gave thee such a tender voice,

Making all the vales rejoice?

Little lamb, who made thee?

Dost thou know who made thee?

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee,

Little lamb, I’ll tell thee;

He is called by thy name,

For he calls himself a Lamb,

He is meek, and he is mild,

He became a little child.

I, a child, and thou a lamb,

We are called by his name.

Little lamb, God bless thee!

Little lamb, God bless thee!


The Music

Interestingly, Tavener did not write any time signature for The Lamb, but more he added bar lines at the end of stanzas to create poignant endings for the message. The free- time feeling is felt for a number of the bars, however there are some that end up falling into a 4/4 pattern too. After the upper voices have sung the first line, other voices begin to enter. Tavener uses some colourful dissonances to create nuanced colour within the harmony. For most of The Lamb, the voices sing each stanza syllabically, however there are some important slurs placed on words such as ‘Lamb’ to signify the importance of certain parts of the text. 

As the second stanza begins, it is clear that the opening line is the basis for the whole piece. As the lower voices unite for some lines of the text, Tavener begins to build the texture back up. The delicate use of quieter dynamics add to the mysterious atmosphere created by the music. As the music winds down, the final line is sung in complete unison, showing significance for ‘Little Lamb, God Bless thee!’. The Lamb finishes how it began, quietly and with sensitivity.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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