A Time to Mourn
Jamie Bernstein: A heads up to our audience: today’s episode may not be suitable for all listeners. It contains discussions of self-harm and school violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Jamie Bernstein: The New York Philharmonic was in the middle of an afternoon subscription concert when, suddenly, the orchestra manager rushed on stage and told the audience the terrible news: John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed.
Jamie Bernstein: The Philharmonic canceled the rest of the concert and sent the audience home.
Jamie Bernstein: l was at home having lunch when the news came over the TV. I was only eleven: not quite old enough to understand the calamity the grownups were experiencing. But I got a hint of it when my father, Leonard Bernstein, came home early from his concert, and he and my mother sat on the edge of their bed together and sobbed. Gradually our house filled with friends and relatives, all of them clustered around the TV in the library, watching the news: drinking, smoking, crying and crying.
Jamie Bernstein: After such an unthinkable episode of violence – and God, we’ve had so many -- we feel so helpless: so utterly abandoned by good fortune, abandoned by goodness itself. Over the course of his life, my father’s response in such situations was to continue making music. After the Kennedy assassination, he immediately arranged to conduct the Philharmonic two days later, on a nationwide live television broadcast.
Jamie Bernstein: They performed Mahler’s Symphony no.2, the Resurrection, to provide a drop of comfort and beauty to a devastated nation. A day later, my father said the words that, I’m sorry to say, get quoted all too often: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.While my father’s words rose out of Kennedy’s death, they also happened to perfectly express the ethos of the New York Philharmonic since its earliest days.
Jamie Bernstein: I’m Jamie Bernstein and this is the NY Phil Story: Made in New York.
Jamie Bernstein: There’s a piece the Phil has traditionally performed each time they mourn a great hero. They played it after the deaths of Gershwin and Toscanini; they played it after the losses of Franklin D. Roosevelt and, yes, John F. Kennedy. That piece is the noble, somber Second Movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3.
Erica Burrman: Beethoven symphony number three, known as the Eroica symphony was a kind of groundbreaking work, not just in music history, but also in Beethoven's own life. I'm Dr. Erica Burrman. I'm the director of the IRA F Brilliant Center for Beethoven studies at San Jose State University in California.
Erica Burrman: This symphony was composed shortly after a very significant episode for Beethoven, which was his coming to terms with the fact that he was going irreversibly deaf. This was something that had been coming on for several years and in the summer of 1802 on the advice of his doctor, he had gone and spent a few months in the village of Heiligenstadt to the north of Vienna to rest with the idea that with some treatments, he would be able to get some of his hearing back and be on the road to recovery. And it was during that summer that he finally came to accept that this was never going to happen and that his hearing would continue to decline.
Erica Burrman: And of course, for a performing musician, that's a disaster. So his career as a performing pianist, which is what he was primarily known for, was over. Also his social life was gonna be hugely impacted. He was already feeling isolated by the fact that he was struggling to hear.
Erica Burrman: So while he was in Heiligenstadt, he wrote an extraordinary document, a sort of last will, combined with a letter to his brothers.
Jamie Bernstein: It’s a tough read, all right. Beethoven describes sitting in a field in the country with friends. His companions can hear the sounds all around them: birds, laughter, shepherds playing flutes and singing… but for Beethoven there was simply nothing.
He felt so desperate and alienated that he considered ending his life. But, he wrote, “art alone deterred me.”
Erica Burrman: [He] came to the acceptance that he was going deaf and decided that he was going to grab fate by the throat, not let this hold him back.
Jan Swafford: He was taught that his talent, his gift, was owed to humanity.
I'm Jan Swafford, I'm a composer and writer and I've written biographies of various people like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Charles Ives.
Jan Swafford: Eroica, the third symphony was written about Napoleon. It's the story of a hero and the career of a hero in the world. It was a symphony about the most powerful man in the world.
Erica Burrman: Napoleon had been the great heroic figure in post revolutionary France as someone who had risen up from humble origins to become one of the most powerful men in Europe. Something that 50 years earlier was not possible, not thinkable.
Jamie Bernstein: Beethoven was deeply stirred by the egalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment. For him, Napoleon was the symbol of the grand, new possibilities for their fellow man.
Erica Burrman: The sense of striving towards a better world. And all men become brothers, all of these sentiments of togetherness.
Jan Swafford: [So] when he got the idea for the Eroica, Beethoven wanted to connect his really deeply felt Enlightenment ideals to his music in a new way.
Jan Swafford: It's a story of a hero and what a hero does in the world. [And it] was going to be called Bonaparte.
Erica Burrman: That title was retracted when Beethoven learned that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor. Beethoven was so disillusioned by what he saw as just a kind of power grab that he tore the title page of his score on which he'd written, that this was called the Bonaparte Symphony, after Napoleon. And eventually it was published just under the title Symphony Eroica, heroic symphony without reference to a specific individual.
Jan Swafford: The first movement of the Eroica has been felt from the beginning and I think accurately to be a portrait of a battle or a military campaign. And so in the story of the piece, what happens after the battle is you bury the dead. Now, this was the middle of the Napoleonic wars and there were a whole lot of dead across Europe and a whole lot of funerals and funeral marches in the streets all the time. And the most famous funeral marches were French. And he used those sort of as the model for his funeral March.
Erica Burrman: The listener, without any context, doesn't know who's this funeral march for. That's left ambiguous by Beethoven.
Jan Swafford: He took this idea of the funeral march and just expanded it in the most radical ways into a complex and far-ranging form that is tragic and inspiring. And, the emotions in this are a kind of portrait of the process of mourning in our lives.
MUSIC STOPS … and then revives
Jan Swafford:There's one very significant thing about it, I think. This is a funeral march that is not religious at all. It has no relationship to religious music. It's a humanistic funeral march. Beethoven had not forgotten God. He was gonna come back to that. He was gonna write religious music, but in this, it is entirely about this world.
Jamie Bernstein: The first time the Philharmonic performed the Funeral March as a stand-alone piece was in February of 1848, in a tribute to Felix Mendelssohn, who had died just three months before.
Jamie Bernstein: They would perform it again seventeen years later at the end of a time of profound national upheaval – but first, they had to survive that long themsevles. In the rough and tumble artistic world of the nineteenth century, orchestral societies failed for any number of reasons -- and more than a few folded in their first decade. But the New York Philharmonic hung in there: they focused on the quality of the music, attracting ever more music lovers to their concerts so that by their fifteenth season, they even needed a larger concert space – so they moved into the Academy of Music in Lower Manhattan.
But then, the outbreak of the Civil War in the 1860’s brought new financial concerns for the Phil – and worries about safety, too . Not only did they have to stay afloat at a time of great insecurity, but they were also located in a city at war with itself. New York was a northern city, but New York’s economy was intertwined with the South, and therefore to the South’s brutal practice of slavery.
Greg Young: New York city is a very fascinating case to study in terms of the Civil War. My name is Greg Young, the co-host of the Bowery Boys, New York City history podcast. It's very obviously a Northern city surrounded by union sympathizing states. But New York is also a commerce city. It is a city that has so many of its purse strings tied to the south. So because of that, there is a lot of sympathy towards the Southern cause here in New York.
Jamie Bernstein: That sympathy toward the South was clearly visible in the city’s attitudes toward Lincoln.
Harold Holzer: Lincoln was not beloved in New York. I'm Harold Holzer, from Hunter College, and I write about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln visited once as president elect and Walt Whitman was trapped in traffic on a trolley of some kind and on the upper deck. So he was outdoors when he saw Lincoln's procession arrive. And he noticed that when Lincoln got out there was not cheering, not booing, just sort of a deathly silence.
(BEAT OF SILENCE)
Harold Holzer: And he thought if someone had a knife here, it would not be surprising if someone tried to attack him here. That's how tense the relationship was.
Jamie Bernstein: Wealthy New Yorkers, with their financial ties to the business of slavery, certainly had their reasons to dislike Lincoln. But New York’s poorest residents had their reasons too.
Harold Holzer: They certainly didn't like him in the middle of the war when the military draft was imposed because rich people could buy themselves out of the service.
Greg Young: And of course, many people who were less wealthy couldn't do that.
Harold Holzer: Hence the expression, a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.
Greg Young: So you had really an incredible divide here in New York and all of that came to a head in July of 1863. The city, it … literally erupted for several days.
Harold Holzer: All of which led to death and destruction and anti-black activities, lynchings.
Jamie Bernstein: They were called the draft riots. And they were taking place practically on the New York Philharmonic’s doorstep: just a few blocks away, rioters were confronting Union troops armed with cannons.
Greg Young: It was one of the most violent incidents in New York city history.
(TAKE A BEAT)
Jamie Bernstein: when the Civil war ended, New Yorkers were elated, and cannon fire was put to a happier purpose:
Harold Holzer: Cannons were shot off. Fireworks were exploded over cities across the north. There was enormous joy.
Jamie Bernstein: After that, the city’s formerly queasy relationship with the president changed for the better.
Harold Holzer: Things are forgiven when wars end.
Jamie Bernstein: But once the celebrations were over, the nation had to deal with the brutal aftermath of the war. Nearly ¾ of a million people were dead. And even after a peace agreement was reached, it seemed entirely possible that violence could erupt again. And sure enough, in a shocking turn of events, the war claimed one more victim.
Stay with us, we’ll be back in a moment.
Jamie Bernstein: This is the NY Phil Story, I’m Jamie Bernstein. Let’s return to the days right after the end of the Civil War.
Jamie Bernstein: On April 14, 1865, just 5 days after Lee surrendered his forces to Grant, Abraham Lincoln and his wife went to Ford’s Theater in Washington DC, with its flag-draped balconies and George Washington’s picture perched on the railing. In the Presidential Box, President Lincoln sat in a walnut rocking chair that had been moved in specifically for this occasion.
The play was a hit comedy called “Our American Cousin,” about the culture clash between a brash American and his landed English cousins.
While Lincoln sat watching the show, the actor John Wilkes Booth crept into the presidential box, pulled out the pistol he had concealed in his pocket, and fired one shot into the back of Lincoln’s head. Booth dropped the pistol, leaped over the balcony railing, and fled.
While the president fought for his life, news of his grave injury traveled around the country.
Harold Holzer: You know, nobody had their iPhone out, but the word got out. Telegraph lines speed news very quickly from city to city and The New York Herald, one of the major papers in New York, not a very friendly one to Lincoln, but they do something akin to breaking news on CNN. They issue a series of editions over the course of the night and into the early morning each with a different medical bulletin on Lincoln's condition and an update on the identity and pursuit of the murderers. And then his death at seven in the morning is quickly transmitted around the country as well.
Jamie Bernstein: The timing of Lincoln’s death turned out to have one very particular resonance:
Harold Holzer: It's a holy weekend for Christians and Jews. It's the end of the Passover holiday for Jews. So they're in synagogue on the morning that Lincoln is announced dead and they hear it from the pulpit. And there is a sense that the sacrifice and the resurrection are happening in real time to a real secular leader. Lincoln is the martyr who gave his life that others can be freed. He died for his nation's sins like Jesus. Jews now react to him as they would to Moses who's the hero of the Passover story. He's led people to the promised land. He's led people to freedom, but he hasn't seen the promised land himself.
Jamie Bernstein: The day Lincoln’s death was announced, businesses in the city were closed and crowds gathered. Walt Whitman traveled to Manhattan from Brooklyn and he wrote of what he saw: “All Broadway is black with mourning–the facades of the houses are festooned with black–great flags with wide and heavy fringes of dead black give a pensive effect… Toward noon the sky darkened and it began to rain.”
Jamie Bernstein: On April 21st, Abraham Lincoln’s casket was placed in a train car draped in black, and the President’s body began making its way from Washington back home to Illinois. The funeral train would stop in 10 cities along the way, each of which would pay their respects to Lincoln.
The New York Phil didn’t perform during the funeral in New York, but the specter would linger in the minds of New Yorkers. So much so, that during the final concert of the 1865 season, the NY Philharmonic wanted to honor the fallen president. The program had originally included the entirety of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, but the orchestra members universally felt that the last movement–the Ode to Joy–was not appropriate for this moment. So the Philharmonic decided to cut that movement and add a different Beethoven composition to the beginning of the concert: they chose, of course, the funeral march from the Eroica.
Erica Burrman: The funeral March starts with great gravity. It sort of conjures up the world of a military parade.
Jan Swafford: It's slow, it's mournful, and the basses are imitations of rolling drums under the melody.
Erica Burrman: This is something that obviously evokes a grand procession. This is obviously a public figure. This is something that involves collective morning. Not just great sadness, but also great tragedy and a sense of a kind of fateful death.
Harold Holzer: The funeral is a huge event in New York City. Thousands of people line the tracks day and night.
Harold Holzer: There are soldiers on guard and watching him, guarding as the train goes by and it's lit. So it's quite a sight for people.
Jan Swafford: Then there’s the middle section to the piece, this very stately fugue that grows and grows into something that's one of the most exalted moments, in the whole musical repertoire.
Jan Swafford: This fugue is, for a lot of people, I think, one of the reasons they became a musician. And that's certainly true of me. It seems somehow to be a distillation of human aspiration and nobility.
Harold Holzer: His remains come into the train station, not too far from where Penn Station operates now and his coffin is placed at the top of the interior staircase at city hall. And people begin to walk by the coffin. They come up one stairway, they go down another and it goes on all day and all night.
Erica Burrman: At the very end, the music kind of dissolves. So the melody that we heard at the beginning, we hear in little fragments and that's almost like the depth of feeling has become so overwhelming that the melody just has to dissolve rather than, rather than come to a stop.
Jan Swafford: The music just seems to dissolve with kind of distant cries into silence.
Jamie Bernstein: On April 29,1865, the New York Philharmonic performed the last concert of their twenty-third season at the Academy of Music. In the program is a notice saying, “The entire community of this city shares with the Nation the deep grief into which our land has been plunged. While thus sorrowing, it has been thought a fitting tribute to our departed Head, to prefix to the programme of the concert the Funeral March from Beethoven’s third symphony, which was expressly composed for the occasion of the death of a great hero.” Which leads us now to wonder: which particular hero might Beethoven have been commemorating, since he had so vigorously erased Bonaparte’s name from the title page of his symphony?
Erica Burrman: I think the fact that Beethoven didn't put a name on the symphony as it was finally published means that it doesn't have to be a particular figure. Ultimately he left that up to the listener's imagination so that you kind of have to work. You're thinking about this incredible funeral march, but it's making you reflect on the nature of heroism generally. What does it mean to be a hero? What does it mean to mourn?
Jamie Bernstein: What does it mean to mourn? In particular, how do we mourn the repeating episodes of senseless violence that seem to be our country’s curse? For the New York Philharmonic as well as for my father, whatever the answer might be, it always has to include music. That ethos, still carried forward today by the musicians of the New York Philharmonic, has comforted communities far beyond the five boroughs.
Anthony McGill: I performed for the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida about a month after the school shooting there. One of–one of the toughest performances I ever did, but also one of the most meaningful ones.
Anthony McGill: Hi, I'm Anthony McGill and I'm the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic.
Anthony McGill: I think after these horrible tragedies, we're often left feeling helpless, you know, how do you, how do you grieve properly? Is that, is that a thing? Do you, is there a way to grieve?
Alex Kaminsky: I'm Alex Kaminski, director of bands at Vandercook College of Music here in Chicago, Illinois.
Jamie Bernstein: But before Vandercook College, Alex was the band director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Alex Kaminsky: 2018, that would've been my third year [teaching] at Stoneman Douglas.
Alex Kaminsky: The band was very much a family. So, at Stoneman Douglas, our older students took the younger students under their wing. It was all about welcome to the family.
Alex Kaminsky: The day of the shooting we lost two freshmen. Two of our kids. And that hit them hard.
Jamie Bernstein: Those two students were Alex Schachter and Gina Montalto. After the shooting, the school closed down. Alex Kaminsky and his son, a freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, went home together – trying to process the trauma they had just experienced. After three days of nearly wordless paralysis, Alex’s son picked up his instrument.
Alex Kaminsky: On the other side of the house, we hear trumpet playing and my wife and I look at each other and it was the first time we smiled in like three days. At that moment I realized that we needed to get the kids together to not only be together, but also to play together.
Jamie Bernstein: With the school still closed, Alex reconvened his band at a nearby middle school. Together for the first time since the shooting, Alex spoke to his students.
Alex Kaminsky: I told them before we played it. I said, just allow whatever emotions you have inside of you to come through in your playing. So we played through it and there was something different coming out of those kids when they played that piece. The music making process was very raw and necessary.
Anthony McGill: These kids loved music, you know.
Jamie Bernstein: In the midst of all of this loss, Alex had some urgent decisions to make. Before the shooting, the band had been chosen to play at Carnegie Hall for a band festival. But in the face of so much trauma, how could he ask the students to travel away from their families?
Alex Kaminsky: My initial gut reaction was to cancel the trip. It's in three weeks. We've all been through something very difficult. And I certainly don't expect that we would go. And the parents and the students said, no, no, we need to go. We're not gonna let fear paralyze us. We're going to overcome evil through making music, which is a power that is a good thing in this world. And that's when we adopted Leonard Bernstein's quote: "To make music, more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." That was our mantra.
Jamie Bernstein: And so, a mere three weeks after the shooting, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas band traveled to New York and took the stage at Carnegie Hall.
Alex Kaminsky: They dedicated that program to the two students that we lost. That was one of the most emotional experiences that I've ever had on a stage. The closing number was the finale from Mahler's Third Symphony, which starts very quietly. And it's basically one long crescendo that ends gloriously.
Mahler’s Third Symphony concludes triumphantly
Alex Kaminsky: There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
Jamie Bernstein: As the hall absorbed the final notes, the audience rose to its feet, and the fervent applause rolled on and on and on… in fact it lasted for a full four minutes.
(APPLAUSE FADES AND RESET)
Alex Kaminsky: When you go to New York, you can't not go to the New York Phil if you're instrumental musicians. At intermission, they asked all of us to go to a green room, and in walk all the principal players of the New York Phil.
Jamie Bernstein: The students made an instant connection with the Philharmonic principal players, and invited two of them down to Florida to play a concert with their band.
Joe Alessi: Hi, I'm Joseph Alessi. I'm the principal trombone of the New York Philharmonic. Alex Schachter was the trombone student who passed away, and the family, I believe, asked if I could come and my wife and I got, we made our plane reservations that same day.
It's a little overwhelming to take that, invitation and say, wow, what can we do? You know? But then we realized that they wanted to hear our music. They wanted to have us work with the band members. They wanted the music to help find some closure.
Anthony McGill: I got to spend time with the students. I got to play in their band with them. It's hard to put into words what that meant to them and to me, but for them, especially because they were music students, there weren't very many ways that they could put into words how they could, you know, remember their classmates.
Alex Kaminsky: I think there's something that happens when you're making music with other people. Because you're not only now communicating with the audience, but you're communicating with the others with whom you're making music. And that's what was happening with my students. Everything was being dedicated to those that we lost.
Joe Alessi: And there was an instrument company and I think they made 50 trombones, to donate to the event. And there was a special trombone for Alex that was engraved for him. And it was sitting, on a chair, during the concert.
Anthony McGill: One of the connections that the school had with the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, is that that concert was called “Our Reply.” Our reply, you know, to violence and toward all those things is music. That was their reply to this. Those students also felt that that was the only thing they could do in that moment.
Alex Kaminsky: Being able to make music was like a pressure valve. You were able to pour out rather than suppress your emotions. That along with the power of music to speak to you personally, as you're making music with other people, was what helped my students to move forward.
Anthony McGill: There is no one way to grieve and yet one way that we as musicians do that is by playing music and performing music in honor of those who we may have lost. And it's a really powerful way of sending a message of community. It can be a gift for an orchestra and an ensemble to give out to the world. Like, we are here with you. That’s what music can do.
Joe Alessi: They wanted us to be there and to help with that healing process. you know, I hope, I, I, I don't wanna see another event like that. I really don't. but if, if music is some way to help out, we will be there again, for sure.
Jamie Bernstein: Coming next week on the NY Phil Story: The New World Symphony in North Korea.
ANTHONY MCGILL: It's really unbelievable when you think about it, how many pieces the Philharmonic has premiered. And how a lot of these works happen to be some of the most alive pieces in the classical repertoire.
MARKUS RHOTEN: Are we playing something that's historic? Is this a historical moment or not? We don't really know.
John Schaefer: This might well be the last place on earth I expected to be broadcasting from, but tonight we bring you this historic concert by the New York Philharmonic at the East Pyongyang Grand Theater.
REBECCA YOUNG: And as we were leaving the stage one or two of us started to wave to the audience and some of them waved back and then everybody was waving at everybody else.
CARTER BREY: We had made a, a human connection with these people.
Jamie Bernstein: If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self harm, please get help. The national suicide hotline is 988. You can also find national and international resources on our website nyphilstory.com
This is the NY Phil Story: Made in New York, produced by WQXR in partnership with The New York Philharmonic … and hosted by me, Jamie Bernstein!
Our production team includes: Lauren Purcell-Joiner, Helena de Groot, Sapir Rosenblatt, Laura Boyman, Elizabeth Nonemaker, Eileen Delahunty, Christine Herskovits, Natalia Ramirez, and Ed Yim.
Our engineering team includes: George Wellington and Ed Haber.
Production assistance from: Ben James, and Jac Phillimore and Mary Mathis.
Special thanks to Monica Parks, Adam Crane, Gabe Smith, and the New York Public Radio Archives.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.