Massachusetts

The Stunned Musical Reaction to JFK’s Assassination

Boston Symphony Hall filled with gasps and sobs when Concertmaster Erich Leinsdorf broke the news of  JFK’s assassination.

symphony-hall

Symphony Hall in Boston

The concert had begun at 2 pm as scheduled with a Handel Concerto Grosso  and broadcast by WGBH. Then people started slipping out of their seats to find out if the rumors about the news from Dallas were true.

The orchestra then played the second work, the premiere of William Sydeman’s Study for Orchestra No. 2. Those who left the hall returned and whispered the news to their seatmates.

During the 15-minute intermission, some of the orchestra members huddled around a 24-inch television set in the basement and watched Walter Cronkite deliver the news about the president’s death.

cronkite

Walter Cronkite announcing the death of the president.

“We were stunned,” said Joseph Silverstein, a 29-year-old violinist. “I was just trying to grasp the reality of it.”

The News of JFK’s Assassination

Concertmaster Erich Leinsdorf telephoned William Shisler, the librarian for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He told him to pull the sheet music for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and bring it to the musicians.

Shisler, scoring music in the BSO’s library, had heard the news in a telephone call from his wife.

Shisler remembered:

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.

Leinsdorf stepped forward and, in faltering voice, broke the news to the audience of JFK’s assassination.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wires. 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. We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.

People gasped and sobbed. Some fled the hall. Most stayed and listened.

As the orchestra played, the concertgoers came to their feet, bowed their heads and then stood for the entire 12 minutes of the march.

(Listen to the announcement here.)

leinsdorf

Erich Leinsdorf

Then Leinsdorf raised his baton, and instead of a routine concert featuring Rimsky-Korsakoff, the Boston Symphony Orchestra played the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

“The “Eroica’marcia funebre’ is one of the great moments in music,” wrote Boston Globe reporter Margo Miller. “The dread beat of the march cannot be disguised. Yet there is a middle section of the movement, a time of incredible energy and involvement, somehow, or so it seemed Friday, expressing eternal hope.”

Comfort in Music

When they learned of JFK’s assassination, some of the musicians thought the concert should be cancelled. But Henry Cabot, the president of the BSO’s board of trustees, told them to stay. On the day his father died, he went to the Boston Symphony Orchestra for comfort, he said.

Shisler couldn’t listen to the WGBH broadcast afterward. He continued as the BSO’s librarian until his retirement in 2014 — after 61 years with the orchestra. He also played viola in the Boston Pops and worked as Arthur Fiedler’s personal librarian, assistant and chauffeur.

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This story about JFK’s assassination was updated in 2020. Image of Symphony Hall By Digfarenough – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2098161. Walter Cronkite Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23664327.

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