Listen to This Chilling Audio as Crowd at Boston Symphony Learns President Kennedy Is Dead

One of the last remaining witnesses to the orchestra's funeral march speaks about his experience

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There are times when music can seem a solitary experience. That goes for the listener, sectioned-off from the world in headphones or listening solo and glorying in “their” music through speakers. It also goes for performers, so often portrayed as ego-driven – and indeed some soloists can only survive the nerves, the lonely travelling life and the terrifying exposure through an assertion of ego. In a cacophonous age, the choice of music can define and anchor the individual. But there are times, of collective crisis or celebration, when music can remind us what a society is. And on Friday November 22, 1963, in a concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra that happened to also be a WGBH radio broadcast and so was captured for posterity, the BSO’s revered music director Erich Leinsdorf broke some unimaginable news to a crowded symphony hall. What was to have been a routine concert became a memorial to the 35th President of the United States, reduced audience members to tears and in some ways redefined what music could be for those present. It is also, surely, one of the most emotional pieces of radio ever recorded.

As can be heard from the broadcast, after the radio announcer’s introduction to one of the scheduled works, a suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Le coq d’or, Leinsdorf emerged and spoke just 53 words, his voice sounding a bit odd, as if taking care to clearly and a little unnaturally project every word. He falters slightly only once, in his second sentence. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wireless. We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it. That the president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination. We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.” Gasps and screams of shock can be heard after the statement of JFK’s death, and after the change of programme is announced there is a general panicked hubbub that takes its time to subside. Then, as the orchestra begins its funeral dirge more slowly than is usual, every note throbbing with pain, there is only a numbed quiet as the news, the awful reality, sinks in.

As is evidenced by the radio announcer’s preamble few in the hall, even backstage, knew in advance what had happened or what, as far as the concert was concerned, was about to occur. One of those few, and one of the only remaining witnesses to that event still with the orchestra, was its librarian, then and now, William Shisler. In a phone interview, he spoke publicly for the first time about his recollections. The memories, he confides, are still painful. He hasn’t been able to bring himself to listen to the broadcast in the 50 years since.

Along with many others he had already heard about the shooting and that Kennedy was hospitalised. “I was in the library working on scoring some music, when my wife called from our home in Needham, Massachusets – it’s around 10 miles from Boston,” he says, “She liked to watch the soap operas in the afternoon. On this day she was watching one called As The World Turned. And the world did turn. The program was interrupted to report the shooting in Dallas. So she phoned me immediately and I was one of the first to hear that in Symphony Hall.”

Word quickly spread, but as the musicians prepared for their afternoon concert and the audience started to arrive it was not yet known whether or not Kennedy had been killed. “Nobody in Symphony Hall was aware. It was near 1 p.m. in Dallas when they announced it, which was nearly 2 p.m. in Boston, coinciding almost exactly with the scheduled start of our regular Friday afternoon concert.”

With the show due to start in less than ten minutes’ time, Shisler got a relayed message from Leinsdorf himself. Run to the archives, put out and distribute the music for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The president is dead.

Such was the rush that Shisler remembers little of his feelings from that moment. His memories get clearer of the minutes immediately following, when it was incumbent upon him to hasten to the stage with scores in hand. “The musicians were already there on the stage, in their places and of course the hall was filled with people. I had to tell each of the musicians as I was handing out the music what was going on. That was the first they knew of the death. It wasn’t an easy moment, for them or for me.”

In the short pause before the conductor strode out with his own heavy burden, Shisler walked, in something of a daze, back into the wings and then out to the auditorium where he took up his favoured listening position, at the back of the first balcony where he could hear but not see. The entrance to the library is nearby and he would sometimes slip through the balcony door to listen in during rehearsals and concerts. He was an accustomed presence there, none of the ushers would have detected anything unusual. Everything seemed normal. Only Shisler knew how different this concert was about to be. “I was – standing there,” he says, haltingly, trying to express the strangeness of the moment, “Knowing he was going to make the announcement and I was about to witness that moment. I had already had my own gasp upon hearing the news, and now I’m standing there witnessing the audience about to have the same reaction. When it came, of course Leinsdorf came out and announced to the audience and there was this huge gasp, it was very emotional.”

Some people left, rushing out in grief. But most, he says, stayed as the orchestra played. Many cried. Shisler was among them. “I was brought to tears by the movement of the Beethoven. It’s such beautiful music anyway.”

Afterwards, he recalls, “everybody was on their own. We all had to deal with it in our own ways and there was no gathering, Leinsdorf didn’t call us together to make any comment, nothing like that.” Nevertheless the dynamic with their music director changed. When they came together again for the next night’s concert, “there was a new camaraderie. I strongly felt that. By the nature of things there’s a love-hate relationship between orchestra and conductor, and that was perhaps especially true with Leinsdorf, but a certain bond was created between us all with him that day.”

It was likely that Leinsdorf, a Jewish immigrant (helped upon arrival, coincidentally, by Kennedy’s eventual successor Lyndon Johnson) who had left his native Austria shortly before the Anschluss with Hitler’s Germany and had been drafted to the American military in the 1940’s, felt the killing of a leader of his idealised adopted homeland as deeply as anyone. He was after all a protégé of Arturo Toscanini, the most famous of Italian conductors, who had publicly made a point of quitting his own country with Mussolini’s rise. Some things, after all, are suddenly more important than ego, or battling for your personal authority over an orchestra.

But Shisler believes something more happened in that unforgettable Friday afternoon concert. “I sincerely believe that music played its part in the tragedy for all of us. Afterwards of course everyone was glued to the television sets for days and days. But in that period of time when we were all there, listening to Beethoven in that concert hall, we all had to respond to this terrible tragedy for ourselves. And the music sort of soothed us, reached out to each and every individual, and helped us to process what had happened.” On that day, for those sitting in a grand concert hall in Boston and perhaps for everyone tuning in via the wireless, a society torn apart by an assassin’s bullets perhaps, in a small way and already, began to be restored, by music.

James Inverne is a classical music consultant and journalist, former editor of Gramophone and European Performing Arts Correspondent for TIME

28 comments
BarbaraStriden
BarbaraStriden

This article seems to contain a fair amount of mistaken information.  First of all, JFK was declared dead by the doctors attending to him in the Parkland Hospital Emergency Room at 1pm, Central Standard Time, i.e. at the precise time the Boston Symphony's 2pm EST Matinee Concert was slated to begin.  The first reports that the President had died only started to filter out at around the bottom of the hour.  Eddie Barker of Dallas television station KRLD was the first to broadcast an unconfirmed report of the President's death, based on a source he'd heard from at Parkland, at around 1:20pm CST, and similar, unconfirmed reports followed for the next twenty minutes.  it wasn't until 1:38pm CST that JFK's death was officially confirmed, and that confirmation was distributed on television, radio and the newswires.

In other words, Erich Leinsdorf, the orchestra's conductor, couldn't have made the announcement of the President's death at the "top of [the] concert", as stated in the article.  The printed concert program confirms this (http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/11/21/246551876/hear-what-happened-at-bostons-symphony-hall-after-jfks-assassination), as it lists a Handel Concerto Grosso as the first work, and we know that the playing of the Funeral March from the "Eroica" replaced what was to be a performance of a Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Le coq d'or".

It's unfortunate that the writer didn't do his research, because the actual timeline implies a more dramatic story.  The first reports of the shooting were broadcast just 15 to 20 minutes before the concert was to begin, but a number of these reports indicated that the President was not only hit, but that his wounds were serious, and PERHAPS fatal.  Did Leinsdorf have the parts for the Eroica passed out before the concert just in case everyone's worst fears were realized?  Or were these parts passed out during an intermission, during which Leinsdorf learned JFK's death had been confirmed?  Or were the parts handed out beforehand, the players performing with the knowledge that the President might be dying, with the death then confirmed to Leindsdorf by a signal from the wings, prompting his announcement to the audience and the playing of the funeral march?

telosmonos
telosmonos

We've seen and heard (mainly on television) so many "Where were you when..." moments in years past about the event that happened fifty years ago today that they begin to sound the same, and in so doing, lose their potency.

Which is why this audio clip from the afternoon of November 22, 1963 at what was to have been the beginning of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's routine afternoon concert is so powerful.

There is no Dealey Plaza footage. No Walter Cronkite breaking the news to a shocked nation. No Zapruder film. There is only a conductor in a packed audience hall, informing them of the assassination, the gasps from the assembled audience and the force of Beethoven's Funeral March that follows.

Listen for yourself. Imagine the audience, desperately trying to come to terms with the enormity of the event. Imagine the conductor and the musicians in the orchestra, playing a hastily-arranged last minute change of music with what must have been a solemn dedication of purpose and poignancy, as Conductor Erich Leinsdorf led the Orchestra through the Funeral March from Beethoven's Third Symphony.

For all of its' merits, television news and those who run it can dull the senses too much by telling us what to think and how to think. Of the many programs and pieces out there that try to capture the sense of that moment fifty years ago, they pale in comparison to this simple fifteen minute audio clip, where music, and the people who make it, can often express what words (and images) cannot.

RaymondYee
RaymondYee

Fifty years ago, the Boston Symphony played Beethoven's Funeral March after the announcement of JFK's assassination.

RobertDAndrea
RobertDAndrea

The first paragraph is overwritten and buries the lede. This story is worth knowing but I could barely make it through the first two disinteresting sentences. 

Androphiles
Androphiles

It fits the story to say so, but in fact the performance of the funeral march was not "more slowly than is usual." Erich Leinsdorf's tempi in general tended to be on the faster side of normal, and this is played in his usual manner. One can only imagine the despair the players must have been feeling, and it is a deeply emotive performance.

AndrewRiegle
AndrewRiegle

I think Ode to Joy would have been  more appropriate

LynnG.Atkins
LynnG.Atkins

Its so chilling to hear this piece, which I have heard many times as a Graduate Music Student, in relationship to this event. I can only imagine what the members of the audience were thinking, feeling, how they were reacting to this. Personally, I would have needed my own box of Kleenex. 

curiousbits
curiousbits

Joseph Silverstein, the concertmaster of the orchestra at that time, is still alive. Perhaps he wasn't playing that day, but I would think there are more people alive today that witnessed that event and would also be interesting to hear from about this day.

MarkTracy
MarkTracy

It's always ironic to hear Time magazine talk about the JFK assassination when Time-Life founders Henry Luce and wife Clare Booth Luce were known FDR-haters and JFK-haters. Life magazine played an important role in the cover-up, reversing the sequence of 2 frames of the Zapruder film to make it look like JFK's head flew forward, instead of the opposite.

KirkWelch
KirkWelch

A little off the topic of Music but I remember that day like it was yesterday, I will never forget it. That for me is saying a lot as I was just 4 at the time and I have large blanks in the memories of my childhood.
My Mother, Sister and myself were sitting on the couch in a small apt in Oklahoma City watching the parade on an old B & W TV. My mom was explaining to us kids who the President was and telling us about Jackie. When the first shot hit him my Mother just froze and gasped, when he fell over into Jackie's lap she began to cry.
We were no strangers to all that was going on at the time. We lived only a few blocks from the State Capitol and I even remember sitting on the steps of the Library near the Capitol in OK,C and watching the war protests and marches that were almost a daily event.
In any case that moment in history will stay with me for the rest of my life and now at the age of 54 I still light a candle for him on the 22nd of Nov. every Yr.

CharlesEvans
CharlesEvans

They just happened to have the Funeral March handy?

KarenSandness
KarenSandness

I was taking violin lessons from a member of what was then the Minneapolis Symphony. An immigrant, he was quite shaken by the news and had trouble concentrating during my Saturday morning lesson. I overheard him telling my parents that the Symphony had cancelled its regular scheduled concert and had thrown together a performance of the Mozart Requiem to replace it.

incrediblekulk
incrediblekulk

Did anyone get up to go home to watch the news? They all gasped and stayed?

bryan52063
bryan52063

@BarbaraStriden The printed program you link to only gives a part of the concert's program.  After the Beethoven-in-place-of Rimsky came Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, a work as long as the other works put together, so the most likely placement of the intermission would have been before that began.  I've heard a broadcast tape of the concert (it's available at a blog called MetroGnome Music) and the first two pieces, with announcements, last 26 minutes combined.  After the second piece is played, you hear silence for a couple of minutes (except for the orchestra practicing a little for the Rimsky - you can hear an oboe play snatches of one of its themes, and a snare drummer - and neither the Beethoven or Rachmaninoff pieces have a snare drum in the scoring!), then Leinsdorf speaks as you hear on this video.

formerlyjames
formerlyjames

@RobertDAndrea Indeed, the whole intro is just so plodding and ponderous that I scrolled down to see how long it would go on, the point being to get to the audio.

PatrickForgione
PatrickForgione

@AndrewRiegle Except for the fact that there was nothing joyous about the occasion.  It's powerful music, don't get me wrong, but it's not the right kind of power.  This movement of Beethoven's conveyed the emotions that everyone was feeling and, as a result, helped them cope with them.

bklyntony
bklyntony

@KirkWelch 

Adding to what Mark Tracy commented:  Technology at the time was not advanced enough to broadcast live for an outside event.  The cameras were large and heavy and needed electricity to operate.  Nothing like the ones today!  The only footage you might have seen was filmed footage taken by witnesses, but this wasn't shown until a few days after the assassination.

When we all saw Jack Ruby kill Oswald in the basement of the Dallas Police Dept. the cameras were all set up ahead of time since the media was alerted that Oswald would be brought through the area.  That was broadcast live. 

MarkTracy
MarkTracy

@KirkWelch Your memory is faulty. The only video taken at the moment of the assassination was the Zapruder film, which the American people were not allowed to view until 1975.

DanEskenazi
DanEskenazi

@CharlesEvans Right?! I think what happened was they couldn't figure out how to work it into their show so they decided the easiest way was to kill the president. It just so happened they had a young upstart on the trombone with terrific aim and sent him out to Dallas. How do you think they learned about it so quickly?! And if it wasn't for you, CharlesEvans, they would have gotten away with it, too!

BrianBell
BrianBell

@CharlesEvans Not only has the score and parts been in the BSO library since 1881, Leinsdorf and the BSO recorded the Beethoven Eroica just the previous year, in the fall of 1962, for RCA Victor. It is a fine performance as are the BSO recordings of the same work by Charles Munch (1957) and Serge Koussevitzky (1945).

RoyJones
RoyJones

@CharlesEvans Charles, the BSO is a seasoned group of highly trained musicians with many years' experience. Every one of them would have played Beethoven's Third Symphony many times in their careers, even before coming to the BSO, so a last-minute change in the program to a familiar piece wouldn't have fazed any of them.

ErinRafferty
ErinRafferty

@CharlesEvans Every professional orchestra keeps a library of standard orchestral repertoire, with its own librarian on staff. That's who they were interviewing, the person whom Leinsdorf told to go get the music. He then had to hand out each and every part to each individual player--that's the librarian's job--and explain what they were doing. The Boston Symphony is and was such a high-level group of musicians that they could easily play it this well without rehearsing. So yeah, they did "just happen to have it handy."

LeilaPhillips
LeilaPhillips

@incrediblekulk It says in the article below, "Some people left, rushing out in grief. But most, he says, stayed as the orchestra played. Many cried."

Darby
Darby

@JasonNewstedt  Ahh, yes, always a troll. So, you expected them to do...what? Riot? Nothing was confirmed. 


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