Timeline: JFK's Legacy to Classical Music

Tune in Friday, Nov. 22 as WQXR Plays Works Connected to JFK

Monday, November 18, 2013 - 02:00 PM

John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy greeting Pablo Casals after his 1961 performance at the White House John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy greeting Pablo Casals after his 1961 performance at the White House (John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library)

John F. Kennedy wasn't the first U.S. president to show an appreciation for classical music or the first to host performers at the White House: John Adams brought the Marine Band to the executive mansion in 1801. Over a century later, Theodore Roosevelt provided a stage for names like Ignacy Paderewski and Ferruccio Busoni.

But President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy together brought a particular zeal to hosting musicians and arts leaders during their three short years in the White House, and in many ways, set the stage for the cultural explosion of the 1960s and '70s.

The First Couple honored Igor Stravinsky with a special dinner in 1962, and persuaded Pablo Casals to come out of exile for a special chamber music recital a year earlier. There was also Elizabethan music played by a period-instrument group, and Copland’s Billy the Kid, presented on a velvet-mounted stage in the East Room by the American Ballet Theater.

Kennedy himself wasn’t particularly music savvy. His wife reportedly had to cue the young president on when to applaud at concerts. But he labored to raise the arts in the public's consciousness, inviting the poet Robert Frost to speak at his inauguration, and later declaring in a speech at Amherst College: "I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft."

Kennedy had a friendly relationship with several artists including Leonard Bernstein, who wrote a brief Fanfare for the Inauguration in 1961, and later dedicated his "Kaddish" Symphony "To the Beloved Memory of John F. Kennedy."

Bernstein's symphony was one of many musical tributes that poured in after the news of Kennedy's assassination broke. They represent a wide assortment of styles, from solemn choral pieces to spiky piano sonatas. Below is a timeline of Kennedy's involvement with classical music. Please share your own Kennedy moments in the comments box below.

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Comments [6]

Larry Richardson from Rochester, NY

I am among the dwindling number of people who can say that they were at opening night of the Kennedy Center in September 1971. A small-town college kid from Illinois working in Fredrick, Md. that summer, I was inspired by all the media hoopla to go into the District and see how close I could get to the festivities. To my amazement, I walked right into the Great Hall and found myself on the steps of the Opera House literally rubbing elbows with Leonard Bernstein, whose "MASS" was commissioned by the family for that night, and with Rose Kennedy and other iconic figures that I had only seen on television. After the performance started, the building was cleared of non-ticketholders, but after the program I walked back in and mingled again! How times have changed - now one wouldn't be allowed withing blocks of the place.
If you had told me that seven years later I would interview baritone Alan Titus, the original celebrant in "MASS," for a Carnegie Hall broadcast that I would be hosting, it would have been another fantastic element of an evening that seemed like a dream.

Nov. 22 2013 03:30 PM
Angela from Millbrook, NY

Elliott Forrest's selection of Mein junges Leben hat ein End today was perfect. Thank you.

Nov. 22 2013 11:18 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Mr.St.Onge, beautiful response, isn't wonderful how people of varied political views can come together on this issues even 50 years after the tragedy.
I neglected to state that some 20 years after the killing I joined the editorial and correspondent staff of The Spotlight,published by Liberty Lobby. Even though it had a rabid right wing reputation their staff attorney and one of my co founders of the Center for Middle East Conflict Resolution was Mr. Mark Lane., the liberal attorney and writer. Of course Mark wrote the authoritative book on the event "Rush to Judgement"
Mark and I traveled throughout the country on speaking tours about middle east issues frequently joined by Victor Marchetti, the ex CIA operative and writer who claimed "inside news" in the CIA's role in the assassination. "Three conspiracy theorists enter a bar"...who know what should come next?
During many late nights at University "taverns" over too much wine and beer Mark would constantly talk about his conspiracy theory views on the killing of JFK.
He actually won a case in Federal Court while attempting to prove a conspiracy in the tragedy.
There are no less than twenty books being issued this week on the event, each with its own varied theory.
Mark has retired in Charlottesville, Va. and we have not spoken in many years. But I can vividly recall our late night talks in both large and small town university gathering places surrounded by students asking questions of Mark and myself about JFK and the middle east conflict.
One would think that fifty years after the event the controversy on the assassination would be put to rest, but sadly if it was a conspiracy there may be no one left alive with actual first hand proof.
I would think it imperative for some nationally elected official to once more revisit the event and use today's technology and fact gathering techniques to see if a definitive answer could be drawn. I think the Kennedy family and every citizen of the U.S. deserves such an open investigation as there is so much that seems to have been left out of the Warren Commission report.
I have no idea if Mark is correct or not, but we all deserve to know the truth about the killing of John F. Kennedy. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 20 2013 08:32 AM
Robert St.Onge from Cochiti Lake,NM

On Nov. 22, 1963, I arrived at Symphony Hall in Boston for my shift as an usher for the Friday afternoon BSO concert. Some fellow ushers mentioned having heard vague rumors of a shooting in Dallas, as did some patrons as they arrived in the Hall. After the music had begun we ushers were told the terrible truth and were ordered to station ourselves about the auditorium in case anyone passed out from the forthcoming news that Maestro Leinsdorf was soon to deliver. You can hear the agonized collective gasp in the clip above as well as the sombre performance of the Funeral March from Beethoven's 'Eroica' but what you can't see is the awesome and moving determination of that Boston audience to stand straight up and not give in to maudlin grief in order to honor one of their own in a dignified manner. Cut now to mid-December when notices went up at the New England Conservatory asking for anyone who knew the Mozart 'Requiem" and who wished to participate in a Memorial Mass performance at the Cathedral to sign up, which I immediately did. After the Christmas holidays, sectional rehearsals were held sporadically - as they were at Harvard, Wellesley and other schools involved - and our one and only rehearsal with Maestro Leinsdorf and the BSO was held on the Saturday afternoon immediately preceding the Sunday Mass, which was to be televised nationally on NBC. We had just started the 'Dies Irae' section when we noticed that Richard Cardinal Cushing was listening in. A break was held after the 'Lacrymosa' and the Cardinal stepped to the podium to address the assemblage. Looking squarely at the chorus, he said, in his uniquely nasal bark, "I'm very disappointed with all of you." Our mouths dropped collectively. "You are singing so beautifully," he added with that Cushing twinkle in his eyes, "that you'll make me sound more like a fish-seller that I usually do'" adding, after relieved laughter died down, "and I expect you to be better tomorrow." And, for our beloved Cardinal and to the memory of our beloved departed President, we were. I tried to call my mother at home in Ware, Mass. for over an hour when I returned to the Conservatory dorm but her line was always busy. Finally in mid-afternoon I reached her and that's when I heard that the TV cameras seemed to have picked me out for a few close-ups and I had been recognized by relatives, friends, neighbors, town politicos and many former Ware residents who had moved to other states who were calling to ask her to thank me for representing them in their hour of sorrow and grief and I heard a sound of profound pride and love in my mother's voice that I had never heard before, which truly humbled me. I'm sorry to have gone on so long but this was one of the most profound experiences of my life and it doesn't abridge easily.

Nov. 19 2013 07:56 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

As a Virginia resident, I frequently rely on The Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts to see wonder concerts and Operas.
I+ recall when the center first opened and even today how grand and imposing the great hall remains.
Back in 1963 I was actually on the air as a College student at WALI, the on campus Adelphi College Radio Sataion. I recall vividly how the Associated Press wire machine we had in the station rang five bells, meaning a bulletin was coming through. I read all the transmissions and finally our faculty adviser suggested we sign off and ask that area listeners tune to their local television stations.
Then I left campus and drove home.
To this day I am sorry I did not think of taking the A.P. wires that were in front of me at the mixing board, I assume they were thrown out. What a piece of history they would have been including the one that announced that President Kennedy had died. God Speed, and may He rest in Peace, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 19 2013 12:45 PM
Diane from Maplewood, NJ

As a high school student I was fascinated with the Kennedy Camelot and was so impressed with a TV tour of the White House guided by the thrilled, articulate, knowledgeable Jackie. I remember having to check out the credits to find out what the background music was, and it seems it was based on early American tunes of the Jeffersonian era.

Then on Nov 22, we heard between classes that the president had been shot. I was playing in orchestra and the choral conductor passed by our director and whispered to him. He shook his head, but didn't miss a beat of conducting. I knew, however, from his expression, that the president had died. My first thought was of the children and what kind of Thanksgiving they could have. We were playing a very slow, funereal part of a set of again American folk tunes, and I thought it so appropriate, and really laid on the vibrato. It changed to an upbeat dance tune, and I heard in that a promise of resurrection, and an uplift to an already heavy heart.

Nov. 19 2013 10:44 AM

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