50 years ago today: How Boston Symphony Hall heard news of President Kennedy’s assassination

James Inverne has tracked down the announcement by Erich Leinsdorf and the audience’s appalled reaction.

It was an exemplary handling of a terrible situation, the more acute for Boston being JFK’s home town. Read James’s article here.

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  • Leinsdorf actually lived in the posh Fisher Hill section of Brookline, the Boston suburb in which JFK spent his earliest years. The performance of the Beethoven was typical of Leinsdorf’s work with the BSO: of very reserved emotion and, as always with slow music and frequently even in faster music, a failure to give rests and pauses their full value, resulting in unsettling rhythmic hiccups. If, as Mr. Shissler claims in the article, the BSO developed a camaraderie with its music director during that awful weekend, it seems not to have been a long-lasting one. That the antipathetic feeling was mutual is confirmed in Leinsdorf’s blame-game memoir, CADENZA.

  • Pärt, Messiaen, Tavener. Why did they all express spirituality though slow music with lots of sustained notes? I suppose it expresses the eternal and transcendent, and is profoundly sincere, but it all gets a bit holy for me.

    What does the deific do when it gets a bit more active? Why did spirituality in Western classical music become trapped in the slow motion of Apollonian heights? Must spirituality be so disembodied? How can our religious understanding break free? Answers to these questions might provide a much needed sea change in classical music.

    I wonder if a black gospel choir could give us some answers about motion, embodiment, and spiritual ecstasy.

  • Returning to what I think Norman saw as the purpose for this post, this recording brought all of the pathos of that several days back for me. I was not in Boston or anywhere near it, but the shock of our first youthful president being cut down so brutally and suddenly was a blow that — even fifty years later — I don’t think I’ve recovered from. I’m not sure that JFK had been president long enough to have accomplished a whole lot, but for many of us, this youthfulness and vigor got a whole younger generation to dare to think on a more idealistic level. Whether JFK can be credited with that or not is beside the point. It was the image he projected and what brought so many people into his thrall.

    On a musical plane, what I remember about that weekend were several actual live performances of solemn works by some of the major orchestras on network television. Regular programming was suspended, and I think that perhaps TV journalism wasn’t prepared for 24/7 coverage, so maybe they welcomed these long breaks where this solemn music would give them a break, while at the same time giving many people a way to mourn and begin to try to make sense of it all. What I remember were deeply moving performances by the NY Phil under Bernstein at Carnegie (Mahler 2nd), Philadelphia and Ormandy doing the Verdi Requiem, and maybe Boston or Chicago SO doing the Mozart Requiem.

    You didn’t need to be a lover of JFK (I’m not sure I was at the time) to be shocked by the first presidential assassination in modern times (in the US), and speaking for myself, these performances brought some kind of healing. Listening to Leinsdorf bringing the news to that audience in Symphony Hall takes me back to my own hearing of it in my high school in a small Midwestern town.

    Thanks, Norman, for posting this.

    • I agree-returning to the purpose of this post, as opposed to an opportunity to offer a critique of Leinsdorf’s musical skills. Those reactions do seem to miss the point. I’m sure to those people sitting there that afternoon, it was, and remained the most moving performance of this music in their lifetimes. What a rapid, inspired choice on Leinsdorf’s part, under the circumstances.

      I do puzzle over your comment about being a lover of JFK to be shocked by the first presidential assassination…etc. Only people who hated him were not shocked, and distraught. While your first paragraph more accurately captures what the death meant, and still means for most of us. Though JFK as a president, and a man, as more has become known-and questions remain as to how effective he really was and would be, even with a second term-the shock sense of loss, and sense of promise unfilled remains. I also agree that the first national tragedy of the TV age, was made even more powerful because we could share it and witness it through television. (However, the shared grief and suspension of normal life, could not have been greater than for Lincoln (Twenty Days) in an age with only a telegraph for modern communication

  • There is the ecstatic element of spirituality in western music, certainly in Messiaen-think of “Regard de l’Esprit de joie”, which has all the ecstatic joy of a gospel choir-but the idea seems to be that in expressing sad emotions one goes for slow. Given that the Barber Adagio has become de rigueur for all sad occasions and there is nothing explicitly spiritual about it, I think the slow motion music you speak of is more about sadness than spirituality.

  • This article brings back memories from a slightly later time.

    For four years, from 1967-1971, while I was in college in Boston I was an usher at Symphony Hall. As a result I got to know,slightly, Bill Shissler (I am happy to know that he is still well and active) and Erich Leinsdorf, among many others in the BSO organization.

    I must say that I found Leinsdorf to have been a “class act”, always very kind to me and not at all unapproachable. Even though I was not a musician and not studying music, he allowed me to show up at rehearsals and even recording sessions.This made a huge impression on me as a teen aged music appreciator in formation!

    To this day I can not understand the negative associations people have with Leinsdorf, while allowing for legitimate criticism of performances or recordings.

    It should also be noted that at Mrs. Kennedy’s request, Leinsdorf and the BSO set up at Boston’s Catholic Holy Cross Cathedral to accompany Cardinal Cushing for a Requiem Mass for JFK. The performance was of the Mozart Requiem and it was recorded by RCA , packaged in a handsome special edition boxed set.

  • This is very interesting. Very terse, practically free of emotion. Imagine how such an event would be treated nowadays (presuming, of course, that no-one had already heard about about it on Twitter, Fæcebook or any of the other technological excrescences we have to endure as citizens of the early 21st Century): an emotional build-up, a tear in the eye, a frog in the throat and, of course, the whole damned thing filmed on a thousand smartphones to be instantly uploaded to YouTube.

    Those of a certain age still talk about where they were and what they were doing when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination. Were it to happen today, people would just be talking about how they filmed the announcement.

  • I remember the day. I was on campus in Boston when word began to spread and I and friends went where we heard a radio. Classes were cancelled and we moved to the parking lot to go home; listening to the radio.

    I believe the orchestra, under Leinsdorf, played the Beethoven 3rd the previous year, but this time the funeral march took on a much more profound meaning; something that stays with me these past 50 years.

    A horrible moment; long remembered. The initial gasp from the audience followed by the reality and lost hope when Leinsdorf announced and began the Funeral March are still familiar.

    Regarding Leinsdorf’s announcement. He spoke to the audience at times, usually about musical matters, but it just sounds like him to me. Yes, not a lot of emotion; the music had that.

    Regards,

    Tom C

    PS I believe a young Idil Biret continued the last half of the program with the Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto.

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