Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981) represents a turning point in the composer’s compositional life. It was the first time a score by Reich needed a conductor to maintain the ensemble in performance. It represented also a transition from shorter melodic phrases found in such works as Music for 18 Musicians, into longer melodic lines and patterns. In Tehillim, Reich set these longer melodic lines to verses from the Hebrew Psalms and created a four-movement work that still highlights the composer’s well-known techniques of repetition and phasing.
Tehillim is an exceptionally challenging work for the conductor and ensemble performers alike, because of the rapidly changing time signatures, the phasing patterns found in virtually every ensemble section, the need for performers to constantly count repeated rehearsal sections in each part, and the effort represented in singing with non-vibrato technique for an extended period of time.
Given the rise in the appreciation of Tehillim as a landmark American work for a vocal-instrumental ensemble, it continues to gain interest among young conductors. This doctoral dissertation aims to provide a useful guide for conductors in academia working with gifted young performers who wish to perform Tehillim. It provides a synopsis of the rehearsal process for the different musical sections, discusses the mindset and methodology that the conductor should have while practicing the work, suggests ideal staging setups, and analyzes the advantages of different tempos taken by various performing groups, including my own performance at the University of Notre Dame in November of 2019. I also assert that the rehearsal process will require non-traditional and innovative approaches because of the musical influences affecting the composition of the work. Therefore, I start with a review of the musical influences, both Western and non-Western, that Reich says helped him conjure the specific compositional style for Tehillim. These include Ghanaian drumming, Balinese gamelan, Hebrew cantillation, and Bach’s Easter cantata, BWV 4 Christ lag in Todesbanden, which Reich considers significant in the reformulation of his style for Tehillim. A brief analytical overview of each of the four movements (labeled Parts I through IV) is also provided. The appendices of this dissertation also provide an IPA transliteration of the Hebrew text, additional notes on the background of Christ lag in Todesbanden, my program notes from the November 2019 performance, and a transcript of an interview Reich gave with the Miller Theatre at Columbia University in 2014. This interview was part of the inspiration for both my performance of Tehillim and this dissertation.