A historic concert this week, given on November 23, 1963 as a memorial for President Kennedy, who had been assassinated the day before. Music Director Erich Leinsdorf leads the Boston Symphony in music of Gluck, Wagner and Beethoven. This was the concert given the day after the historic announcement from Leinsdorf that Kennedy had been assassinated. But the stunned silence still says it all.
Although Kennedy’s assassination was a national and even international tragedy, this president was a native son of Boston. He was born as the grandson of the former mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, and as the son of former Massachusetts legislator and local bigwig Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. So perhaps there were even more layers of disbelief and sorrow in Symphony Hall that day after the pride of the city was gunned down — and you can hear all of that in real time.
In the days that followed, there were other heart-wrenching musical moments, like the New York Philharmonic’s nationally televised performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony the day before music director Leonard Bernstein gave an unforgettable speech at Madison Square Garden that includes some of his most famous remarks: “This sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather it will inflame our art … This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before.”
But what is most remarkable hearing the Boston broadcast from Symphony Hall on that Friday afternoon, is the sense of how those people in that time and place — performer and audience member alike — process this shocking event collectively. First, we hear the gasps and shushes after BSO music director Erich Leinsdorf utters the words: “The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.” Second, a wave of groans and sighs after Leinsdorf continues, “We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony” — as if the crowd’s shared response is that they couldn’t possibly have heard the first part right, but that then the orchestra’s change in repertoire confirms the awful, unimaginable truth. And then, for the next 14 minutes … utter silence, save for the incomparably somber music.
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