The day the music stopped

Hear audience learn of JFK assassination

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Story highlights

  • This week marks 50 years since JFK was assassinated
  • Boston symphony-goers learned of his death during a weekly performance
  • The moment is captured on an audio recording

Gasps punctured the air inside Boston Symphony Hall after the conductor interrupted the afternoon performance to announce to the 2,500 people in the audience that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Listening to the moment, which was captured on an audio recording, the emotions are still powerful 50 years later.

The weekly Friday concert had started at 2 p.m. "just like normal," recalled Joseph Silverstein, then a 29-year-old violinist in his first year as the concertmaster for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. No one in the concert hall knew that, as they took their seats for the performance, their president had been fatally shot in Dallas.

Thirty minutes in, the orchestra broke for a 15-minute intermission. And that, Silverstein recalled, is when this very normal day was shattered.

During the intermission, Silverstein remembers huddling around the 24-inch TV in the basement, watching in horror along with 100 other musicians as Walter Cronkite delivered the news of the assassination.

There was no time to react. "I was just trying to grasp the reality of it," Silverstein said, adding that he has never publicly shared his memories from that terrible day until now. "We were stunned."

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The orchestra had to go upstairs to an audience that remained blissfully unaware of the events in Dallas.

As the group walked to the concert hall, several orchestra members openly wept, but Silverstein says they still managed to take their seats.

The orchestra's music director, Erich Leinsdorf, was going to have to break the news to the audience. Silverstein says the legendary music director was nervous, but his Austrian-tinged English was slow and deliberate while making the announcement, as if delivering the 46 words was just as painful as the initial shock of the president's death.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over 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 the victim of an assassination."

A rush of gasps and screams filled the cavernous hall.

Leinsdorf continued, "We will play the funeral march from Beethoven's Third Symphony."

A second swell of gasps as the audience grappled with the news and the announcement that the music would go on.

Seated at the end of a row, closest to the audience, Silverstein watched the stunned people react to the news. Some left the hall, but the majority remained. The audience came to their feet, standing for the entire funeral march, rising to honor the memory of their slain leader.

The funeral march lasted for 12 minutes, what seemed like an eternity to Silverstein.

The orchestra's president of trustees at the time, Henry B. Cabot, a member of Boston's noted Cabot family, walked to the stage. Cabot, who regularly attended the Friday afternoon concerts, told the audience a story about the death of his father, according to Silverstein saying that he had "needed to hear music to help through the tragedy" because of the "solace" music provides.

Playing his violin for the remainder of the program, 30 minutes of a very surreal experience, Silverstein could barely concentrate on the music. He remembers gazing out into the audience and looking into the eyes of others in the orchestra, disbelief registering on their faces.

Once the program was over, the remaining audience members stood and filed solemnly out of the hall. Not one person applauded. Silverstein himself went home to his mourning family in nearby Brookline.

He remembers this event as the first of many blows to the country, as it was followed by the assassinations of Malcolm X, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

The shooting of the president was the "first time anyone of us had been confronted with the situation," he said.

It was the day peace was shattered.