Moved By Kennedy's Death, The Boston Symphony Played On

Nov 21, 2013
Originally published on November 21, 2013 8:08 pm

A visit to the symphony: It's often a solitary experience that can, in truly important moments, become communal — as it did in Boston on Nov. 22, 1963.

At 2 p.m., the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Friday afternoon concert began like any other. The orchestra stuck to the program until 2:35 p.m., when it took a brief break. When conductor Erich Leinsdorf returned to the stage, he did not lift his baton to the orchestra. Instead, he gazed out into the audience, forced to share some terrible news.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wires," he told the crowd. "We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it.

"The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination," Leinsdorf said to loud gasps from the crowd. "We will play the funeral march from Beethoven's Third Symphony."

We've all seen photos, listened to stories or shared personal experiences of that day — that particular moment when you first learned about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But there's something unique about hearing the reaction from an entire concert hall of people hearing these words for the first time.

The orchestra played on, giving the musicians and the audience time to absorb the news.

Later, during a scheduled intermission, the musicians debated backstage whether it was appropriate to go on. Ultimately, Henry B. Cabot, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's president of trustees, decided the music should continue.

"The day my father died, I came to a symphony concert for consolation," Cabot told the stunned audience. "And I believe you will receive it yourselves."

And above, you can listen for yourself, in a recording for radio broadcast by Boston member station WGBH.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

At first, Friday, November 22, 1963, was a Friday like any other for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At 2 o'clock, a crowd had turned out for the orchestra's usual Friday afternoon performance at Symphony Hall. President Kennedy had been shot half an hour earlier and while some in the audience had heard the news, word of his death had not yet spread.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The orchestra stuck to the program until 2:35. After a brief break, conductor Eric Leinsdorf walked slowly back on stage.

ERIC LEINSDORF: Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wires. We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it.

SIEGEL: Offstage, the symphony's librarians had quickly prepared for a change in the program. They pulled sheet music for a different piece and had already slipped it onto music stands when Leinsdorf broke the news.

LEINSDORF: The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.

(SOUNDBITE OF GASPS)

LEINSDORF: We will play the funeral march from Beethoven's "3rd Symphony."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: When the orchestra finished, the musicians left the stage for a scheduled intermission. Backstage, they debated whether it was appropriate to continue. Ultimately, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's president of trustees, Henry B. Cabot, took the stage.

HENRY B. CABOT: That ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra came to me during intermission and some of them felt that we should not continue the concert. I told them that I felt we should continue and I told them that the day my father died, I came to a symphony concert for consolation and I believe you will receive it yourselves.

SIEGEL: And so, the orchestra played on, mourning a president who had been born just a few miles from where they stand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.