Leonard Bernstein was in a fix. The man he’d supported for the presidency of the United States was to be inaugurated the next day, and he was to launch a gala celebration at the White House with his own newly composed fanfare. But Washington’s streets were nearly impassable, choked by a blizzard.
It took a police escort, but Bernstein made it to the White House. Under the circumstances, a side trip to his hotel for a change of clothes was out of the question, so on the evening of 19 January, 1961, Leonard Bernstein conducted the 30-second Fanfare for JFK without his tails. The best he could do was a borrowed, outsize dress shirt as he led an orchestra assembled from musicians who’d plowed their way through the daunting weather.
Not that a lack of formal wear was going to exclude Leonard Bernstein from the Kennedy White House. He and John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been friends for years. Both were Harvard graduates; they’d met while appearing in a mid-1950s television special about life at the school. Politically, Bernstein had deeply held progressive leanings, so backing Kennedy was natural for him. He was also close to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.
Two years and 10 months later, Leonard Bernstein – with all Americans – recoiled in shock and horror as the news reached him: an assassin’s bullet had ended the dynamic young president’s life.
Two days after those harrowing events of 22 November 1963, Bernstein took to television’s CBS network to deliver a musical memorial to his friend. He led the New York Philharmonic in a work he’d recorded just that year – Gustav Mahler’s transcendent, transformative "Resurrection" Symphony. Assisting him were soloists Lucine Amara and Jennie Tourel, and the Schola Cantorum of New York.
Bernstein’s hastily arranged concert was not the first classical music broadcast to honor the nation’s fallen president.
In times of deep public mourning, America has, since at least the 1945 death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, almost universally turned to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Despite its emotional intensity, the work projects both simplicity and strength. Even those unfamiliar with it find that it helps them compose their minds and hearts. The major US television networks aired the Barber Adagio when the president’s death was announced.
Their choice was apt, and not just because of tradition. The Adagio was one of President Kennedy’s favorite works. His widow Jacqueline Kennedy requested that the National Symphony Orchestra perform it on Monday the 25th, the same day as the president’s funeral mass. They played to an empty hall, but the concert was broadcast.
The first known classical music concert broadcast in the late president’s memory took place in Boston much earlier – just minutes after his death had been announced.
On the afternoon of the 22nd, the Boston Symphony was set to play a concert to air live over Boston public radio station WGBH. Minutes before the scheduled 2:00pm start of the program – 1:00 Dallas time – Boston Symphony librarian William Shisler received an urgent message from music director Erich Leinsdorf.
Shisler already knew that the president had been shot. He’d been working in the library, and his wife had called with the news. Now Leinsdorf told him to locate and distribute the music for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The musicians were already onstage. Quickly, Shisler explained to each what had happened.
The WGBH announcer introduced the first scheduled work, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or suite. The engineer brought up the microphones.
But instead of raising his baton, Leinsdorf turned to the audience and spoke: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wires – we hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it – that the president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination. We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s third symphony."
That same fateful Friday afternoon in November, violinist Isaac Stern was at the Dallas airport. He was en route to a Saturday concert date with the San Antonio Symphony when he too learned that the president had been murdered.
Stern was slated to play the Sibelius concerto, but at the next morning’s rehearsal, he found that he simply couldn’t. It wasn’t in his heart. That evening, Stern wept as he played the Bach Chaconne in tribute to his fallen friend. The orchestra sat, silent.
The president’s funeral mass was on Monday at Washington’s St Matthew’s Cathedral. It was a low mass, so no complete requiem setting was performed. However, the St Matthew’s Choir presented excerpts from Lorenzo Perosi’s requeim; and tenor Luigi Vena sang several sacred works, including Schubert’s Ave Maria. (Almost 46 years later, soprano Susan Graham sang the same Ave Maria at Senator Edward Kennedy’s funeral mass.)
According to William Manchester, author of The Death of a President, Jacqueline Kennedy also requested that Vena sing a work that he had performed at her wedding.
What we usually call the Bizet Agnus Dei is indeed Bizet’s music, but it’s not really his setting. After Bizet’s death, his publisher asked Bizet’s friend, the American-born Ernest Guiraud, to arrange a second suite from Bizet’s incidental music for the play L’Arlesienne. Guiraud went further, fitting the sacred Agnus Dei text to the intermezzo from the suite.
The First Lady’s request wasn’t honored that Monday, but we’ll honor it this evening through a performance by tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
The full Requiem Mass for President Kennedy took place at Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral almost two months later, on 19 January 1964 – exactly three years after Bernstein had conducted his fanfare at the president’s inauguration. Cardinal Cushing officiated.
The Requiem setting was Mozart’s. At Jacqueline Kennedy’s request, Erich Leinsdorf led the Boston Symphony along with the Chorus Pro Musica, the Harvard and Radcliffe Glee Clubs, and the Seminarians of St John’s. Soloists were soprano Saramae Endich, alto Eunice Alberts, tenor Nicholas DiVirgilio, and baritone Mac Morgan.
The performance was recorded and originally issued in 1964 as a 2-record set. A recent CD release was timed to coincide with this 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.
Web exclusive: When percussionist and composer Warren Benson (1924-2005) began work on a new piece in 1963, his goal was simple: to create a wind band composition with a broad range of expression. The unrelenting energy of most existing band works "just wore you out by the time it was over," Benson said.
But then came November, and everything changed. "The news really devastated us," he said. "I guess it was on the next Monday that one of my percussion students brought in [the poem] Autumn by Rainer Maria Rilke. The first line captivated me because it seemed like everything was going to pot … the upbeat spirit of the Kennedy Administration had just been blown away."
Benson married his earlier musical ideas with the Lutheran hymn Ein Feste Burg to complete The Leaves Are Falling in honor of the late president’s legacy.
Listen to Warren Benson’s The Leaves Are Falling:
("The President’s Own" US Marines Band conducted by Colonel Michael J Colburn – courtesy USMC)
As we reflect on President Kennedy’s life and death, it’s worth remembering the part that music plays in helping us through our darkest moments.
At its core, music is organized sound. If we’re to bring order and peace to this disordered, violent world, the place to start is inside our own hearts, where music’s quiet rigor raises a bulwark against chaos. As Bernstein said the day after his 1963 memorial concert, "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."
From the German folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn)
|O Röschen rot!||O little red rose!|
|Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!||Mankind lies in greatest need!|
|Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!||Mankind lies in greatest pain!|
|Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein!||I would much rather be in Heaven!|
|Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg;||Then I found myself on a broad path;|
|da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.||Came then an angel who would divert me.|
|Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!||No, no, I will not be diverted!|
|Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!||I’m from God, and intend to return to God!|
|Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,||The loving God will grant me a small light,|
|wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!||will light me to blessed eternal life!|
Rainer Maria Rilke
|Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,||The leaves fall, fall as if from afar,|
|als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;||as if distant gardens withered in the skies;|
|sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.||they fall and shake their heads "no."|
|Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde||And in the nights, the heavy earth falls,|
|aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.||desolate, away from all the stars.|
|Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.||We all fall. This hand falls.|
|Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.||And look at the others: it is in them all.|
|Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen||And yet there is one who holds this falling|
|unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.||Endlessly, softly, in his own hands.|
Baritone Thomas Hampson on the origins of Mahler’s Urlicht (Hampsong Foundation)
Erich Leinsdorf’s Tribute to JFK, Friday 22 November 1963 (Time Magazine)
Isaac Stern plays the Bach Chaconne (Youtube)
The Leaves Are Falling (PDF: Eastman Wind Ensemble conductor Donald Hunsberger interviews composer Warren Benson)
A portion of this article was published in WKSU Classical on 22 November 2012.