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