Inside Boston's Symphony Hall, November 22, 1963

By Elizabeth Deane
Longtime producer and writer for WGBH

If you were old enough to grasp what was happening on November 22, 1963, you will always remember that day. Even if you were born decades later, you likely have seen the black-and-white images from Dallas, and newsman Walter Cronkite’s grave announcement of President John F. Kennedy’s death. This month we’re listening to two clips from WGBH Radio of that Friday afternoon in November, zooming in, Google Earth-style, on a stately building on Massachusetts Avenue in Boston. No one in Symphony Hall that day will ever forget how they heard the news, and the music that followed.

This Month from the Vault:
Inside Boston’s Symphony Hall, November 22, 1963
Most of the audience for the regular Friday afternoon performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra knew nothing of the events in Dallas as they took their seats. An article in The Boston Globe published on November 23 says that the concert “had begun in normal fashion” at 2pm. Conductor Erich Leinsdorf opened with a Handel Concerto. But, says the Globe, rumors began to circulate in the audience as the concert continued. Early news reports said that there had been an attempt on the president’s life—Kennedy had been shot but his condition was not known.

Orchestra management got word of the assassination just after the concert got underway, according to BSO accounts. Leinsdorf was quickly consulted at the end of the ?rst half of the concert. As you’ll hear in the clips, the conductor told the audience of the tragedy and the orchestra played a splendidly appropriate piece of music, the funeral march from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. BSO librarians had scrambled to retrieve the music and get it on to the orchestra’s stands.  

WGBH’s Ron Della Chiesa was in the hall that day with his father. He says in the second clip that it was not customary for the conductor to speak to the audience during a concert, and I think I hear a rustle of surprise—or possibly dread—in the audience before Leinsdorf speaks. WGBH audio engineers “opened all the house microphones to capture his words,” according to BSO documents.  The sound of the audience when Leinsdorf breaks the news is unforgettable.

The audience stood as the orchestra then played the funeral march, unrehearsed. “The dread beat of the march cannot be disguised,” says the Globe’s review. “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.”

But what would happen next?

Backstage, Leinsdorf had been part of a “heated discussion,” as he described it in his autobiography, between Henry B. Cabot, president of the BSO’s Board of Trustees, and George Zazofsky, chairman of the Orchestra Committee. Cabot insisted that the concert should go on after the funeral march; Zazofsky, Leinsdorf says, “assumed we would go home.”  

“We were not sure if the concert was going to go on,” says Idil Biret in a 2005 interview with WGBH’s Laura Carlo. The wunderkind pianist from Turkey, then barely 22 (her birthday was the day before), was scheduled to make her American debut that afternoon. “But during the intermission the president of the orchestra [Cabot] went on the stage and said that the day he lost his father, he went to the concert to ?nd some consolation, [and] that he hoped that the audience would also ?nd this consolation.”

Our clips do not include Cabot’s entreaty, but the Globe says “most listeners took heed…So it was the task of the orchestra, of Leinsdorf, and of a young Turkish pianist…to provide comfort through music.” Biret played Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, and “she attacked it with the rapture of youth.” “It was the most moving experience I ever had,” Biret says.

photo + video captions:
President Kennedy in Dallas, TX, minutes before the assassination.

A look inside Symphony Hall in Boston.

WGBH Radio announcer William Pierce can be heard describing the second half of the program during intermission of the Nov. 22, 1963 concert. He cuts short his remarks to introduce the conductor…. “Here is Mr. Leinsdorf.”

WGBH’s Ron Della Chiesa was in the hall when Leinsdorf told the audience of the tragedy. He reflects on the moment.  

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