Throwback Thursday: The BSO’s Moving Tribute to JFK Just After His Death

Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Erich Leinsdorf marked the moment with an impromptu performance of a Beethoven funeral march.

As the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination approaches, many are revisiting this moving recording of Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Erich Leinsdorf informing his audience of the news. His short statement and the impromptu performance that followed, captured by WGBH that day, make for an transporting listen.

Time spoke with BSO librarian William Shisler this month, who recalled that news of the shooting barely preceded the start of the concert. Few in the audience would have known beforehand. With less than ten minutes to go, Leinsdorf sent word to Shisler that there would be a change in the program and he should distribute music for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

“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,” Shisler told Time.

With much of the audience still unaware, Leinsdorf walked out on stage. “The tradition in symphony at that time, the conductor rarely said anything to his audience,” WGBH’s Ron Della Chiesa recalled later in an interview with his own station. With some emotion in his voice, Leinsdorf spoke.

“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.” Gasps and screams can be heard from the audience. After a prolonged attempt to regain quiet, Leinsdorf continues. “We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.”

“People stood up,” Della Chiesa remembers. “Many in the audience began sobbing.” Some ran out, but others stayed. “Everybody could have left, but music is a great consoling force.”

It would have been as hard a moment for Leinsdorf as for anyone, WQXR remembered last year on the conductor’s 100th birthday. A Jewish immigrant, he fled Austria before the Nazi Anschluss, became an American citizen, and was drafted into war for his adopted country. The performance that day was impressive under the circumstances, slower and more mournful than usual.

Afterward, Shisler recalled to Time, everyone dispersed. “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.” But for the 14 minute performance, the orchestra and the audience on Massachusetts Avenue absorbed their grief together.