November Numerology: JFK and the Musical Meaning of 11/22

By Benjamin K. Roe


Pablo Casals performs at the White House
Pablo Casals performs at The White House on Nov. 13, 1961 (photo by Cecil Stoughton, courtesy of the JFK Library)

Nov. 22, 1963, changed the world, including the world of the arts. To hear the news of President Kennedy's assassination as delivered by Erich Leinsdorf during a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert, click on "Listen" above.

For my parents, it was Dec. 7, 1941. For my children, it’s Sept. 11, 2001. But for us Baby Boomers, November 22, 1963 was The Day That Changed Everything. And all across the WGBH radio and television stations – WCRB included – this month has been a time to reflect not only the consequences of that tragic day in Dallas, but also to revisit through the prism of the ensuing half-century the brief but memorable presidency of the nation’s youngest President and his stylish First Lady.

John F. Kennedy himself proclaimed his administration as the “New Frontier,” and certainly the Kennedys staked out important new territory in promoting arts and culture in America. It started with JFK’s inauguration on a snowy January day in 1961. The pomp and circumstance attending the swearing in of the nation’s youngest president was accompanied by a brand-new Fanfare for JFK by Leonard Bernstein, a poem by Robert Frost, and an inaugural ball performance by such luminaries as jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, and pianist Earl Wild playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

Hear Earl Wild describe the snowstorm odyssey of the Inaugural Ball:

And that was just the beginning. Spurred by Jacqueline Kennedy’s interest in the arts, the list of musical “firsts” in the White House is remarkable in its scope, breadth, and intensity:

  • A live radio broadcast (and subsequent LP) of chamber music from the East Room
  • The first Jazz concert ever held in the White House
  • Programs featuring youth orchestras (including Boston’s) on the South Lawn, as well as the pipes of the Scottish regiment The Black Watch
  • And the night in 1962 when the Kennedys hosted a gathering of 49 Nobel Prize winners, prompting the President to quip that it was the "most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

It may have been a New Frontier, but others called it “Return to Camelot,” inspired by the then-current Broadway musical penned by JFK’s Harvard classmate Alan Jay Lerner:

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment that
Was known as Camelot.

The “spot” of Camelot may have stopped on November 22nd, but not the shining vision. John F. Kennedy devoted one of the earliest speeches of his presidency to the idea of creating a “National Cultural Center”, a place we know today as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. JFK also set in motion legislative initiatives that led to the formation of the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities. And it was a JFK Executive Order that led to the inclusion of artists and musicians for the Presidential Medal of Freedom … and to a “freshman class” of recipients that included contralto Marian Anderson, pianist Rudolf Serkin, and cellist Pablo Casals, who received their awards just weeks after Kennedy’s death.

So while November 22nd is a day that is undeniably associated with tragedy, for those whose lives are enriched by the arts, it’s also a day that evokes a particular richness, beauty, poignancy, sweetness, and sorrow – in short, all the emotions that music can convey. And they come together on what is also perhaps the most musical day of the year: November 22nd is St. Cecilia’s Day, honoring the patron saint of music, with odes to her honor composed by everyone from Paul Simon to Benjamin Britten, who just happened to be born 100 years ago on November 22, 1913.

November 22nd is also the birthday of Bach’s oldest son Wilhelm Friedmann (1710), songwriter Hoagy Carmichael (1899), Concierto de Aranjuez composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901), and MacArthur Prize-winning pianist Stephen Hough (1961). Also born on St. Cecilia's day was Boston’s resident musical genius and former New England Conservatory president Gunther Schuller (1925), who used to exchange birthday greetings with Britten, and now does so with current NEC President Tony Woodcock, who shares the birthday.

This was also the day that Helen Hayes debuted on the Great White Way (1909), Maurice Ravel’s Bolero premiered (1928), Simon & Garfunkel first appeared on American Bandstand (1957), Man of La Mancha began its 2,238-show run on Broadway (1965), and Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant was released (1967).

Much has been made on this 50th anniversary of the powerful and chilling moment when many Bostonians learned of the death of their former neighbor and current President via an afternoon broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra on WGBH Radio. The moment when music director Erich Leinsdorf tells the Symphony Hall audience the shocking news and then plunges the BSO into Beethoven’s Funeral March remains frozen in time. (To hear the announcement from the stage of Symphony Hall, click on "Listen" above.)

And it would never have been possible without another important event that happened on November 22, 1899: The incorporation of the Marconi Wireless Company of America, the world’s first radio company. A device that to this day remains essential to fulfilling Kennedy’s vision of music and the arts in America: “The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is close to the center of a nation's purpose – and is the test of the quality of a nation's civilization.”


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