John Tavener's setting of William Blake's poem "The Lamb" (from the 1789 publication Songs of Innocence) was performed as part of the traditional "Nine Lessons and Carols" broadcast from King's College, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve, 1982. The composer so wanted Mother Thekla -- his friend, associate, and collaborator -- to hear it that he urged the sagely nun to borrow a radio so she could listen to the program from the convent; he told her to listen for a signal from him that would identify his work, and so, sitting in the audience in Cambridge, he coughed loudly as a sign to Mother Thekla that his piece was about to begin. The music that followed his noisy introduction would turn out to be one of Tavener's best-known works; so commercially successful was the piece that his publisher proclaimed it "the biggest selling choral title in our catalogue, by any composer, living or dead."
The piece was originally conceived as a birthday present for the composer's nephew Simon on the occasion of his third birthday. One of Tavener's numerous occasional pieces composed for special events in the lives of family and loved ones, the music for The Lamb came to Tavener as an artistic revelation. As Tavener himself recalls: "I looked through the poems of William Blake and I found "The Lamb." I read the words, and immediately I heard the notes." The composer sensed the potential for success in the piece, and immediately sent it to his publisher and arranged for the performance at King's College. He also sent copies to Martin Neary, who would conduct the premiere of the work at the Winchester Cathedral, a few days before the "Nine Lessons and Carols" broadcast.
The work, scored for a cappella choir, is as gentle and meek as the title implies. Its most striking surface feature is the variation in texture that marks certain divisions in the text. The scoring alternated between three types of color: unison, contrary motion, and full harmony. The haunting melody appears alone at first, as the voices sing together; at the second line, however, the lines are set atop a mirror as a lower line follows in intervallic inversion. Retrograde iterations of the melody follow on the horizontal plane, while the vertical sonorities shimmer with crystalline dissonance. Finally, at the last quatrain of the first verse, the ensemble joins in with lush harmony -- not coincidentally, on the line "Gave thee such a tender voice." The second verse of the poem is given the same musical treatment, with the inverted counterpoint symbolically setting the paradoxical line in which the Creator of the universe becomes a little child. The paradox is reconciled into doctrine with the warm cadential progression of the final four lines.