Local News
7:57 am
Fri November 22, 2013

In 1963: Boston Symphony Conductor Breaks News Of Kennedy’s Death To Audience

The Boston Symphony Orchestra with music director Erich Leinsdorf at Symphony Hall, Boston.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra with music director Erich Leinsdorf at Symphony Hall, Boston.
Credit BSO Archives

News of President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination aired live on radio and television around the world moments after it happened.  But in Boston on November 22, 1963 hundreds of people learned about the tragedy- not directly from media- but from the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. WGBH Radio aired the BSO concert live that day. In the audience 50 years ago was a man whose life was altered by that single event. 

If you’re of a certain age, sometime on November 22 and in the days following you’re likely to be asked by a friend, a neighbor, or a stranger Where were you the moment you learned that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been shot in Dallas?

Ron Della Chiesa was 25-years-old in 1963. He recalled the moment and the hours leading up to it with photographic precision.    

With Caruso playing in the background in his Dorchester home, Della Chiesa— the voice of classical music and jazz in Boston for many years on WGBH and WCRB- motioned for me to sit down as he began to recall that day.

"I remember it being a bright crisp day.  Of course we were all looking ahead to Thanksgiving," he recounted.

And Della Chiesa and his dad were also looking forward to the Friday symphony –as they did almost every Friday.  It was their weekly pleasure and this day was no different:

"I picked him up about 11:30, so we had time to have a little lunch. Concert time at Symphony Hall was 2 p.m.  We went to a little luncheonette bar across the street at Symphony Hall.  And the television set was on.  I remember seeing it above the bar in the corner.  A soap opera was on: 'As The World Turns'."

All of a sudden Walter Cronkite broke in. As they were about to go into the concert Della Chiesa and his father heard Walter Cronkite say:

“As of now, we don’t have any confirmation that the President was hurt.  We will keep you updated.”

Shaken by this news, father and son walked contemplatively across the street to Boston Symphony Hall.  

“And so we take our seats, and I could see that people probably didn’t really know what had happened and some of them had probably been already sitting in the hall, and so they had no idea of the news that we received earlier, where we did.”

The concert, which was broadcast live on WGBH that day, began with a Handel Concerto Grosso.

“And continued with another piece by a contemporary composer, so that was about 20 to 22 minutes into the concert.  And then there was a rather long pause.

Credit Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

And in recalling that moment, Della Chiesa also pauses… a demonstrably emotive reflection.  

At the end of that brief hush in Boston Symphony Hall, conductor Erich Leinsdorf turned and addressed the concert goers.

“It was very unusual for a conductor to address the audience in any kind of classical concert. Usually they let the music speak for itself.  Leinsdorf came out and there was a little rustling and said ‘we have received a report on the wires’.”

“ We hope that it is unconfirmed but we have to doubt it,” Leinsdorf told the audience. “The President of the United States has been a victim of an assassination.”

The audience let out audible cries and moans of shock.

“We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony,” Leinsdorf announced.

Della Chiesa said the music—the Funeral March; those 15 minutes, punctuated by sobs and cries from the audience, continued to play in his head to this day. Complete with the sad visual images from Dallas:

“And I say that was the most traumatic 15 moments of my life, musically. To be there with my father.  In that moment, to hear that music. The funeral music from Eroica,” Della Chiesa said.

The composition choice was a last minute decision by the conductor, who turned to his musical librarian, William Shisler, to get the music to a confused assembly of cellist, violinists, oboists and others:

“As he distributed that music- if you could put that image in your mind- going for the violin section, to the brass section, to the woodwind section, and then telling him what had happened,” Della Chiesa said.

“In passing out the music, the query was: Why are you doing this,” Shisler said.

Shisler, the longtime music librarian for the Boston Symphony Orchestra , recalled the reaction from the musicians moments after learning that President Kennedy had been shot. It was the most dramatic and traumatic moment in William Shiler’s now 57 year career with the Boston Symphony Orchestra:

“I don’t remember whether I actually broke down in tears or not. I was busy doing what I needed to do. Get the music out and get off the stage so they can go ahead and do what had to be done,” Shisler said.

The announcement at the BSO was unlike announcements being made at other venues around the nation that day as peole stood, watched and listened to the shocking report from Dallas.

That collective sigh  that afternoon was not just the shocked reaction to the death of a President, but a response to the violent tragic slaying of a native son- a Bostonian, Della Chiesa said. Kennedy had attended concerts in that great hall, and the First Lady Jackie Kennedy was a fan of the BSO. 

“Little did I know in that day in 1963 that years later that I would be up in the broadcast booth doing the Boston Symphony broadcast. And so there are all these connections with what happened that day in Dallas and what transpired in Symphony Hall.  It resonated with grief.   

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