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Composed: 1981

Length: 30 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, bassoon, percussion (maracas, clapping, marimba, vibraphone, crotales, tambourines), 2 electric organs, strings, and 4 women's voices

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Tehillim was inspired by Reich's Jewish heritage but does not reproduce it. The ancient sound-world affected his incorporation of tambourines, hand clapping, small cymbals, and rattles. But, as Reich notes: "Beyond this there is no musicological content to Tehillim. No Jewish themes were used for any of the melodic materials. One of the reasons I chose to set Psalms as opposed to parts of the Torah or Prophets is that the oral tradition among Jews in the West for singing Psalms has been lost… This meant that I was free to compose the melodies for Tehillim without a living oral tradition to either imitate or ignore." Reich chose psalm verses that he felt he "could say with conviction"; later, he recalled: "the melodies came out of the words."

Immediately we are dropped into what the composer calls "unabashed melody and accompaniment," gradually woven into a thick braided texture: "The first text begins as a solo with drum and clapping accompaniment only. It is repeated with clarinet doubling the voice and with a second drum and clap in canon with the first. It then appears in two-voice canon and at last the strings enter with long held harmonies. At this point all four voices, supported by a single maraca, doubled by two electric organs and harmonized by the strings sing four four-part canons on each of the four verses of the first text. When these are competed the solo voice restates the original complete melody with all drums and full string harmonization."

A short transition leads into the second movement, whose more restricted palette and intricate horizontal lines emphasize Reich's aesthetic debt to medieval music: "Here the three verses of text are presented in two- or three-voice harmony in a homophonic texture. Sometimes the voices are replaced by the cor anglais and clarinet or by the drums and clapping. Soon the melodic lines begin augmenting (or lengthening) and then adding melismas. The effect is of a melodic line growing longer and more ornate." The tempo slows for the third movement, in which texture gives way to timbre as the defining element. Cymbals, marimba, and vibraphone emphasize the sensuous quality of what Reich calls "the most chromatic music I have ever composed."

The last movement, based on the irresistible-to-musicians Psalm 150, serves as a true summation: "The fourth and final text resumes the original tempo and key signature and combines techniques used in the preceding three movements. It is, in effect, a recapitulation of the entire piece which then, in a coda based solely on the word 'Hallelujah,' extends the music to its largest instrumental forces and its harmonic conclusion." The unambiguous D-major ending is, to this listener's ear, the reverse of that of Three Movements: surprising but not abrupt. The contradiction is both aesthetically satisfying and appropriate from a composer whose language is equal parts compelling and elusive.

- Susan Key is a musicologist and frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs, specializing in American music.