November 22, 1963, already was a memorable day for Mary Sauer (currently the Orchestra’s principal keyboard), as it was her and her husband Richard’s fifth wedding anniversary. While on her way to Orchestra Hall for the Friday afternoon matinee concert, she heard the news of the events in Dallas: President John F. Kennedy had been shot at 12:30 p.m. CST while riding in a motorcade in Dealey Plaza. It was unconfirmed whether or not the president was still alive.
CSO flute and piccolo Walfrid Kujala recalled, “I remember emerging from the State Street subway around 1:00 p.m. on my way to Orchestra Hall and seeing a crowd hovering around a television display in the front window of a Palmer House store. That’s where I first learned about Kennedy’s assassination.” And CSO principal trombone Jay Friedman remembered, “I heard about it before I took the stage; it was announced on television earlier that day.”
The CSO matinee concert was scheduled to begin at 2:00 p.m., not even two hours after the president had been shot and shortly after Walter Cronkite had confirmed the news of Kennedy’s death at 1:38 p.m. Just before the concert began, an announcement was made from the stage (presumably by general manager Seymour Raven) and there was significant reaction of shock from the audience, including audible gasps, cries, and even screams.
Moments before, it had been decided to open the concert with the second movement—the funeral march—from Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica) followed by the rest of the program as scheduled: Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto, Henze’s Third Symphony, and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with Byron Janis, all led by Jean Martinon. Sauer recalls the emotion of the musicians as they took the stage: “The feeling was similar to when we were in Lucerne on September 11, 2001, deciding whether or not to continue with the concert. There was a tremendous sense of uncertainty, because the news was so fresh and still unfolding, and we did not know so many of the facts. But ultimately, needing to perform was the only answer. One of the beauties of music is you can immerse yourself in the performance and let the music be a retreat from the rest of the world. Performing allows you to escape from the stresses of life as well as being a powerful means of releasing and sharing of one’s emotions.”
According to newspaper accounts, a “self-imposed blackout on all regular [entertainment] programs and commercials on television since President Kennedy’s assassination last Friday was brought to a close last night with special memorial programs.” The Chicago Symphony Orchestra made its own contribution on Monday, November 25, taping a concert for broadcast at 4:00 p.m. on WGN-TV. The program was carried by ABC in the afternoon and rebroadcast (presumably only locally) later that evening at 10:15 p.m.
The television program contained works by Gluck, Bach, Beethoven, and Barber, all led by Martinon. The Bach was a repeat of the First Brandenburg Concerto from the previous week and the Barber was his Adagio for Strings. However, the other two works on the program remain unconfirmed, as no programs were printed and we do not have a copy of the broadcast in our collection. A logical choice for the Gluck might have been the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo ed Euridice; but the Orchestra had just performed the Overture to Iphigénie en Aulide on November 14 and 15. Also, Martinon and the Orchestra had performed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on October 10 and 11 and the Seventh Symphony on November 14 and 15, so both interpretations would have been fresh.
Friedman also recalled being in a restaurant that day, along with principal trumpet Adolph “Bud” Herseth, principal tuba Arnold Jacobs, and fellow section trombone Robert Lambert, watching the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery on television. When the bugler played Taps, Friedman remembers Bud saying, “I wouldn’t want his job.” (That job was given to Army Sgt. Keith Clark.)
The subscription concert program for November 28 and 29, 1963—originally programmed by Jean Martinon months before and designated as a memorial to Fritz Reiner only days before—became a memorial for President John F. Kennedy. A new program cover was printed and the Reiner insert also was used.
Margaret Hillis had prepared the Chicago Symphony Chorus for both works; and the soloists in the Mozart were Adele Addison, Carol Smith, Walter Carringer, and William Warfield. According to Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune, “After the emotional exhaustion of these last black days, neither the austere beauty of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms nor the not-quite Mozart of the Requiem asked more of the listener than he had left to give. It was a quiet, beautifully played, wholly compassionate concert in Orchestra Hall.”
A footnote: at virtually the same time on Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963, a nearly identical scenario was unfolding in Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts. The Boston Symphony Orchestra‘s Friday afternoon matinee began at 2:00 p.m. EST, and their concert already was in progress when orchestra management received word of the events in Dallas. Near the end of the first half of the program, music director Erich Leinsdorf was informed and the decision was made to play the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Their librarians (including William Shisler, whose recollection of the event is here) quickly distributed the music and Leinsdorf made an announcement from the stage. The entire event was captured on tape by WGBH.
Thanks to Bridget Carr, archivist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Images of the revised program pages can be found here, as part of the BSO’s Archives fantastic project to digitize their program book collection.
A second footnote: to commemorate the anniversary, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform Stravinsky’s Elegy for J.F.K. on November 21, 22, 23, and 24, 2013. Kelley O’Connor will be the mezzo-soprano soloist; the work also features CSO clarinetists John Bruce Yeh, Gregory Smith, and J. Lawrie Bloom. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts.