Remembering Erich Leinsdorf's Impromptu Requiem for JFK

On the 50th Anniversary of Kennedy's Assassination

Saturday, February 04, 2012 - 12:00 AM

Erich Leinsdorf Erich Leinsdorf

The radio microphones were present at a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at an extraordinary moment in American history.

On November 22, 1963, conductor Erich Leinsdorf was leading the regular Friday afternoon BSO concert at Symphony Hall. Before the program began, it had been reported across the nation that president John F. Kennedy had been shot by a sniper while riding in a motorcade in Dallas. It was known, too, that his injuries were serious, but that was all the information that was available.

During the first half of the concert, what was feared became confirmed: Kennedy’s wounds were fatal. Monitoring news reports backstage at Symphony Hall, orchestra officials determined to continue the concert, but with a change in the program. Librarians pulled orchestral parts to Beethoven's "Eroica" funeral march from the shelves and brought them down to the stage door. After learning of the tragedy himself backstage, Leinsdorf walked back onstage, relayed word to the audience, and led the BSO in a work in tribute to the nation’s fallen leader. Listen to that moment in the audio above.

Leinsdorf was, in many ways, the right man for this task. He was an old-world conductor who found great success in the New World. Born on February 4, 1912, in Vienna, Leinsdorf’s musical talent was discovered early. He studio piano, cello, and conducting at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, and at the University of Vienna and the Vienna Conservatory. He assisted Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini at the Salzburg Festival in the 1930s, but left Europe for New York in 1937 to escape the rising Nazi influence. He went to work as an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in 1938.

In the early ’40s, Leinsdorf became an American citizen and was appointed Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra. A draft notice ended that job and, after the war, he found himself in a three-way race with George Szell and Vladimir Golschmann for the Cleveland position, which Szell won. Leinsdorf found a musical home with the Rochester Philharmonic, and spent eight years there, returning to New York to work at both City Opera and the Met.

In 1962 he began a prestigious appointment as music director of the Boston Symphony, and remained with the BSO until 1969, making a number of successful recordings. In spite of all the time he’d spent in New York, he didn’t make his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic until 1972, but was well-regarded as a guest conductor by Philharmonic audiences. He spent a couple of seasons in the late ‘70s with the Berlin Radio Orchestra, and helped the Cleveland Symphony through a transition between conductors in the early 1980s. Erich Leinsdorf spent his later years at his homes in New York, Florida, and Switzerland, and died in Zurich in 1993.


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Comments [19]

David from Flushing

It would have been nice to know more of the audience reaction. Did they applaud at the end or disperse quietly? The audience sounds after the announcement seem as though many left immediately.

Nov. 22 2013 07:47 PM
Kate Peiser

Thank you so much . I just heard the Eroica from that fateful day played and brought tears again.

Nov. 22 2013 11:13 AM
Jazmin M. from Long Beach, N.Y.

Thank you to Jeff and WQXR for playing this moving clip. I was 9 yrs. old when JFK was assassinated and I am still moved to tears when I recall the fear, confusion, and profound sadness of the adults around me that day. When Maestro Leinsdorf announced the tragedy and proceeded to conduct Beethoven's Eroica Funeral March, I thought how comforting that music can express what I can not sadness, admiration and longing for a peaceful world.

Nov. 22 2013 11:00 AM
M. Childs from Brooklyn

Thank you so much for posting this. It sounds like the beginning was edited...why, why, why?

Nov. 22 2013 09:47 AM
Bernie from UWS

What's strange to me is that people would sit there through a piece of music after hearing such shocking yet incomplete news. Wouldn't one immediately get up and go to a TV? Maybe many people did and we just can't tell here but I find it odd that Leinsdorf didn't immediately call off the concert at that point.

Nov. 22 2013 08:37 AM

Thank you beyond words for this clip. From Boston, a volunteer in his Presidential campaign, I was in a Colombian village as a Peace Corps volunteer on this day. This is a link I've been longing for w.o realizing it until I heard it.

Nov. 21 2013 06:55 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

What a wonderful piece of American history, for this alone I will become a member of WQXR even though I have many issues with most editorial issues on Public Radio, this piece of history if nothing else is worth contributing for. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 21 2013 06:01 PM
Christine Barrett from Las Vegas NV, former Bostonian

We are today celebrating the World Series win of the Red Sox, and to the credit of the players, they also recalling the attack of the Boston Marathoners with a message of resilience and unity. I was in Boston on family travel, in the airport as the last flight out before they closed it. I am misty as I listen to these notes and heard our conductor's voice, saluting all the brave ones in each place.

I happened to check my mail and saw this today, so fitting, another message of unity from this applause goes forth, back in time to all who made this possible, and to all in the future who realize the significance of facing evil, head on.

Thank you for this WQXR. (I was an 8 year old in 1963, but not spared the gravity of that weekend as it lives on in my memory, as it does for others.)

Oct. 31 2013 04:26 PM

Thank You WQXR for Remembering Erich Leinsdorf's Impromptu Requiem for JFK...

Feb. 19 2012 05:08 PM
Marianne from NJ

Thank you, Jeff for this musical moment in history. I was 11 years old when our beloved president was assasinated. Both time and music healed our nation's wounds. We can thank God for both.

Feb. 07 2012 05:21 PM
v reed from NJ

The same reaction came from the audience at a performance of Uncle Vanya with Laurence Olivier. Toward the end of the play people backstage began to receive word via radio. Olivier walked back onstage at the end of the performance and said "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have received word that the president of the United States has been assassinated - we hope it isn't true - it's on every station" A wave of stunned sound rose from the audience. "Let us rise and sing The Star-Bangled Banner" he continued. Another wave rolled over the audience as they audibly rose, then sang. I imagine everyone there remembers it.

Feb. 07 2012 10:01 AM

Jeff, thank you for this audio clip. That is a treasure to share with us from a moment of American history those of us who lived through it will never forget. I know I will not forget it.

As for Leinsdorf and the BSO performing the Eroica funeral march, I believe I understand why you would state Leinsdorf was "in many ways...the right man for this task." He sought refuge in the U.S. after seeing a great nation (Germany) begin a descent into the nightmare and bestiality that was to become the Third Reich. He knew of political horror and assassination from close up. Yes, he would have had a sense of familiarity with the turmoil and emotional upheaval an assassination and death would bring based on what he'd already lived through in Germany. Many of us in New York feel the same way about Kurt Masur having been the music director of the NY Philharmonic when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred. Masur, like Leinsdorf, had seen and lived through shock and horror and fear that was both the Third Reich and the subsequent Communist regime. He too was able to find artistic freedom and personal safety in the U.S. only to have events conspire to attempt to wrest that from him. We needed to heal then (and now) and Masur now as with Leinsdorf then were the precisely correct maestros to lead our orchestras at a moment of great national emotion and crisis. They were where we needed them to be, when we needed them there.

Feb. 06 2012 10:59 AM
Bruce Lueck

Thank you for bringing back a piece of musical history that reminds us of the power of music, not only to inspire but also to heal. Let us hope that future generations will have the same appreciation of music's ability to transport us, at least for a few moments, to a different time and place.

Feb. 05 2012 10:57 PM
Abby Farber from Little Neck, NY

In an interesting coincidence, Leinsdorf was conducting the BSO at Tanglewood in 1969 when the Lunar Module landed on the moon - making it the first time humans had been on the surface of the moon. I was at the concert with my family then, Leinsdorf made the anouncement I remember to this day - my memory is that it was "Ladies and Gentlmen, I wish to announce that the Eagle has landed on the moon. We will now play the Star Spangled Banner". And he did, and we all stood up and sang. It was a wonderful moment.

Feb. 04 2012 04:33 PM
Fred Gouveia from New York

I was moved to tears during this broadcast. How powerful the audience's reaction at the announcement made and the rapid succession into the beginning of the music. It was incredible. I can only imagine what the audience must have been feeling and thinking about during the entire performance of this movement. Thank you for broadcasting this moment WQXR.

Feb. 04 2012 04:26 PM
arturonoyola from Mexico City

But... from where does it stem that "Leinsdorf was, in many ways, the right man for this task"? Maybe he was, but after introducing your biographical note with those words, you dont't mention anything from which one can deduct that "Leinsdorf was, in many ways, the right man for this task".

Feb. 04 2012 10:05 AM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

The recordings with the Boston Symphony of Mahler's First and Fifth Symphonies I agree are treasures, especially the First; and I'm sure all opera lovers treasure "Turandot" with Nilsson, Tebaldi, Bjoerling et al, as well as "Ariadne auf Naxos" with Rysanek, Jurinac, Peters, Peerce et al, and "Die Walku"re" with Nilsson, Vickers, London, et al. The "Macbeth" he recorded with Rysanek, Warren and Bergonzi due to Mitropoulos's death is another one for the ages, in my opinion. But I think Leinsdorf's legacy is just as memorable in his books, "The Composers Advocate: A Radical Orthodoxy for Musicians," his autobiography, "Cadenza", and "Erich Leinsdorf on Music". I feel any serious music lover/student/professional will reap handsome reward by reading and re-reading them, especially "The Composer's Advocate..."

Feb. 04 2012 08:32 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

Thank you for this amazing look back into American musical history, Mr. Spurgeon. While an undergrad in the early 80's, I had the good fortune to attend a NY Philharmonic dress rehearsal with Mr. Leinsdorf conducting Bruckner 4. While small in stature, when he took to the podium he seemed "larger than life" and what an incredible sound he got from the musicians, especially the brass section!

Feb. 04 2012 07:43 AM
Timothy J Brown from Washington, dc

Thank you, Jeff. That is a nice article and I'd read about the JFK tribute but never heard the recording. Played a lot of the Leinsdorf/Boston Mahler records growing up in the 1960s.

Feb. 04 2012 06:17 AM

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