Leonard Bernstein once commented about his music that everything he composed was “of the theater.” Bernstein was, of course, one of the great men of the 20th-century American theater, but his self-analysis indicated that, whatever the project, he did not write in the pure ether of abstract music, but preferred human involvement with a situation. That explains why, when he composed Halil, dedicated “to the spirit of Yadin and his fallen brothers” (Yadin Tanenbaum was an Israeli flute student killed in his tank close to the Suez Canal during the 1973 war), Bernstein added, “I know his spirit.” He had never met Yadin, but his nocturne for flute, strings, and percussion, supposedly an abstract composition, is based upon a theatrical program involving conflict and death. On the other hand, an audience can listen to this dramatic work simply as a flute concerto, without any knowledge of its program.
Excerpt from Bernstein’s Halil
Bonita Boyd, Flute; Barry Snyder, Piano, Milken Family Foundation.
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To dramatize his tribute to an unknown soldier, Bernstein created a struggle between tonal and non-tonal forces. “It is a kind of night music which, from its opening 12-tone row . . . is an ongoing conflict of nocturnal images: wish-dreams, nightmares, repose, sleeplessness, night terrors—and sleep itself, Death’s twin brother.” The “night music” to which he refers is a phrase applied to the music of Béla Bartók, whom he greatly admired; in addition, as a lifelong insomniac, it reflected his own emotional response. To add to the drama, Bernstein creates images of conflict with “shrieking” and “crude” episodes, after which the flute, representing Yadin, is silent.
Paul Myers, a classical record producer for more than 40 years, is the author of several books, including a biography of Leonard Bernstein (Phaidon).