Flutist Paula Robison writes about Leonard Bernstein's Halil for Flute and Orchestra and her personal journey with its composer and the world of its subject, a young Israeli flutist killed at the onset of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
In Memory of a Young Israeli Flutist
Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece Halil for Flute and Orchestra has not enjoyed the same acclaim as many other of his works, and I feel that this is in part because it addresses a subject which has always been and probably ever shall be a highly sensitive and controversial one: Israel.
Halil (the Hebrew word for “flute”) was written in memory of a brilliant nineteen-year-old Israeli flutist, Yadin Tenenbaum, who was killed in his tank in the Sinai at the onset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The piece is clearly a tribute to Yadin, to his youth and beauty, to his great powers as a musician. This tribute includes his loving family and their grief at losing a son and brother, and it does of course extend to all the people of Israel, soldiers included.
The important thing to realize, however, is that the images evoked in Halil extend even farther, beyond those particular borders. They are not limited to one country or one people. Rather, I believe that the composer meant to include all of humankind in his tribute and grieving; not only Israel, but all lands where there is war, with its hellish waste of life. Leonard Bernstein wrote: “Halil is formally unlike any other work I have written, but is like much of my music in its struggle between tonal and non-tonal forces. In this case, I sense that struggle as involving wars and the threat of wars, the overwhelming desire to live, and the consolations of art, love, and the hope for peace.”
I have many reasons to treasure Halil and to feel a kind of mission to perform it. I was blessed to have worked with Leonard Bernstein since my youngest days as a flutist, to have experienced first-hand his passion for music and for life, and to have witnessed his constant search for ways to work towards peace in the world. I played Halil for the first time at his memorial service in New York City. I continued to perform it after that, always searching for “who I was” as I played it, since it is such a theatrical and narrative work. And then I had a transformative experience. During a scholarly trip to Israel I asked our guide if he’d ever heard of Bernstein’s Halil and he answered “Of course! I knew Yadin! Do you want to talk to his sister?” He took out his phone as I picked myself off the floor, I spoke with Ella, and she invited me to Tel Aviv where I spent an unforgettable afternoon with the Tenenbaum family. Such kind, elegant people! They showed me pictures of the tall and handsome Yadin, played me recordings he had made, and after we had spoken together for a while his mother looked at Ella, and at her husband, and suddenly asked me “Would you like to play his flute?” Yadin’s flute case had not been opened since his death. His father brought it into the room. He opened it. I took the flute in my hands and played it. And suddenly Yadin was there, alive in the room with us. We all knew this. We all wept. Since then I have felt that his spirit is close by as I play, just as Leonard Bernstein felt it as he wrote the piece.
Halil was written originally for solo flute, strings, harp, percussion, and, hidden within the orchestra, 2 flutes answering the solo flute and symbolizing Yadin’s spirit.
A piano reduction is often used including 2 percussionists. The version we are performing (with permission from the Bernstein family) is for piano (taking the strings, harp, and hidden flute parts) and 6 percussionists. With these forces the power of the work is preserved as well as its intimacy.
Halil opens with a great rush of sound, as if a young man were bounding onto the stage, filled with life and youth. It modulates into what I call the “Love Theme,” a gentle, intimate melody, like a mother rocking her child. This theme is interrupted by a call from the spirit voices, and then nightmarish sounds from the percussion, suddenly turning and leading into a joyous, jazzy dance, the flute singing out. All seems well and happy. Abruptly a shot is heard and more shots, with a full onslaught of the percussion. We are in the midst of battle. Smoke is everywhere. The flute cries out, shrieks, hallucinates, sings fragments of themes, shudders, tries to rise, but in the end, after more intense fire, and after one great cry, is silent. The ensemble continues, singing from the heart, and after a pause, we hear again the love theme. But it is interrupted, gently, as if we are thinking of Yadin, and we stop, and look around, and we say “But he’s not here; where is he?” Then again we hear Yadin’s spirit voices in the piano, as if to answer our question, and in the last few bars the solo flute finally speaks again as if from a great distance, in what Bernstein called “its ambiguously diatonic final cadence,” breathing a final “amen.”
I am very grateful to Frank Epstein and the stellar NEC Percussion Ensemble for taking on this project, and to Deborah Emery for joining us and becoming an entire orchestra!