The Symphony Hall audience reacts to JFK’s assassination

Here is conductor Erich Leinsdorf announcing the assassination to a stunned audience at the Friday afternoon Boston Symphony concert.  What I find particularly poignant is the second set of gasps when he says that the orchestra is throwing away its scheduled program and instead will play the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica.  It’s as if the audience didn’t quite process his first statement, and the change in program made them understand the reality of what had happened.

I can’t embed the audio, but the WGBH archive has a clip that starts with the legendary announcer William Pierce, unaware that the world had change out from underneath him and everyone else, introducing the Rimsky-Korsakov piece that was scheduled to lead off the concert.

Time has an interview with the BSO music librarian, who hasn’t been able to bring himself to listen to the broadcast in the 50 years since:

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.”

I recall that the pop stations in Boston switched over to classical music for that weekend, realizing that Beethoven had more to say to us during that awful time than “Louie Louie,” which as at the top of the charts in November 1963.  It sure doesn’t seem like half a century has passed.

4 thoughts on “The Symphony Hall audience reacts to JFK’s assassination

    • Walking in hallway from Geometry to Physics. Students talking in hallway; don’t remember specific moment when I heard what they were talking about. No physics exam that day. Remember being cold that entire weekend; I can look back now and say, “Oh, yes: shock”. On the day of the funeral, helped take down the flag; our school always ended the day with “Taps”, and that was the first time I heard it played with the tremor.


  1. Pingback: The most sublime music ever written | richard bowker

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