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Moved By Kennedy's Death, The Boston Symphony Played On

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A visit to the symphony: It's often a solitary experience that can, in truly important moments, become communal — as it did in Boston on Nov. 22, 1963.

At 2 p.m., the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Friday afternoon concert began like any other. The orchestra stuck to the program until 2:35 p.m., when it took a brief break. When conductor Erich Leinsdorf returned to the stage, he did not lift his baton to the orchestra. Instead, he gazed out into the audience, forced to share some terrible news.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a press report over the wires," he told the crowd. "We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it.

"The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination," Leinsdorf said to loud gasps from the crowd. "We will play the funeral march from Beethoven's Third Symphony."

We've all seen photos, listened to stories or shared personal experiences of that day — that particular moment when you first learned about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But there's something unique about hearing the reaction from an entire concert hall of people hearing these words for the first time.

The orchestra played on, giving the musicians and the audience time to absorb the news.

Later, during a scheduled intermission, the musicians debated backstage whether it was appropriate to go on. Ultimately, Henry B. Cabot, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's president of trustees, decided the music should continue.

"The day my father died, I came to a symphony concert for consolation," Cabot told the stunned audience. "And I believe you will receive it yourselves."

And above, you can listen for yourself, in a recording for radio broadcast by Boston member station WGBH.

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