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Conductor Erich Leinsdorf Breaks News of Kennedy's Assassination to BSO Audience


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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. The orchestra then went on to play the Funeral March from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony for the grieving audience.


One of the last remaining witnesses to the orchestra's funeral march speaks about his experience:

As is evidenced by the radio announcer's preamble few in the hall, even backstage, knew in advance what had happened or what, as far as the concert was concerned, was about to occur. One of those few, and one of the only remaining witnesses to that event still with the orchestra, was its librarian, then and now, William Shisler. In a phone interview, he spoke publicly for the first time about his recollections. The memories, he confides, are still painful. He hasn’t been able to bring himself to listen to the broadcast in the 50 years since.

Along with many others he had already heard about the shooting and that Kennedy was hospitalized. "I was in the library working on scoring some music, when my wife called from our home in Needham, Massachusets – it's around 10 miles from Boston," he says, "She liked to watch the soap operas in the afternoon. On this day she was watching one called As The World Turned. And the world did turn. The program was interrupted to report the shooting in Dallas. So she phoned me immediately and I was one of the first to hear that in Symphony Hall."

Word quickly spread, but as the musicians prepared for their afternoon concert and the audience started to arrive it was not yet known whether or not Kennedy had been killed. "Nobody in Symphony Hall was aware. It was near 1 p.m. in Dallas when they announced it, which was nearly 2 p.m. in Boston, coinciding almost exactly with the scheduled start of our regular Friday afternoon concert."

With the show due to start in less than ten minutes' time, Shisler got a relayed message from Leinsdorf himself. Run to the archives, put out and distribute the music for Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. The president is dead.

Such was the rush that Shisler remembers little of his feelings from that moment. His memories get clearer of the minutes immediately following, when it was incumbent upon him to hasten to the stage with scores in hand. "The musicians were already there on the stage, in their places and of course the hall was filled with people. I had to tell each of the musicians as I was handing out the music what was going on. That was the first they knew of the death. It wasn't an easy moment, for them or for me."

In the short pause before the conductor strode out with his own heavy burden, Shisler walked, in something of a daze, back into the wings and then out to the auditorium where he took up his favored listening position, at the back of the first balcony where he could hear but not see. The entrance to the library is nearby and he would sometimes slip through the balcony door to listen in during rehearsals and concerts. He was an accustomed presence there, none of the ushers would have detected anything unusual. Everything seemed normal. Only Shisler knew how different this concert was about to be.

"I was – standing there," he says, haltingly, trying to express the strangeness of the moment, "Knowing he was going to make the announcement and I was about to witness that moment. I had already had my own gasp upon hearing the news, and now I'm standing there witnessing the audience about to have the same reaction. When it came, of course Leinsdorf came out and announced to the audience and there was this huge gasp, it was very emotional."

Some people left, rushing out in grief. But most, he says, stayed as the orchestra played. Many cried. Shisler was among them. "I was brought to tears by the movement of the Beethoven. It's such beautiful music anyway."
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