Song 326: Ludwig Van Beethoven, Symphony No. 3, 2nd Movement (Boston Symphony Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf, cond.) (1806/1963)


Fifty years ago today, at about 2 p.m., Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Erich Leinsdorf approached the conductor’s podium before a packed Symphony Hall. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, shakily but steadily, “we have a press report over the wireless. We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it. That the president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.” Most of the audience—and the musicians onstage—were unaware that Kennedy had been shot, let alone killed, and in the below recording of the event, you can hear the shock, the anguish, the despair in peoples’ reactions.

Ten minutes before his announcement, Linsdorf asked BSO librarian William Shisler to distribute copies of the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica.” Leinsdorf used the movement, commonly known as “the funeral march,” to eulogize a president who had died only moments before.

Beethoven originally wrote the Symphony as a tribute to the then-emerging Napoleon Bonaparte; he rescinded the tribute at the last moment when learning of the emperor’s shortcomings. The symphony, then, is a tribute to greatness in everybody. Its darkness and (intentional) inconsistencies reflect the shortcomings in humanity.

The below recording, which was made for the BSO’s regularly scheduled afternoon broadcast on WGBH, is a tough listen. Leinsdorf’s announcement is predictably heart-wrenching, but the piece itself—performed by musicians who had just learned that the president, their president, had died—is raw and visceral, as if each performer is processing the terrible news with every measure. The audience, though grief-stricken, and gutted to the core, is absolutely silent.

I had intended to write about the first movement of the “Eroica,” which is triumphant, idiosyncratic, and downright amazing, but I stumbled on this piece of history and couldn’t resist the timing. I’m glad I changed course, because I found this absolutely fascinating. It also made me listen more closely to the second movement, which is an odd mixture of sadness and sweetness—minor and major chords, to be overly simplistic. There’s acceptance amid the despair, especially in those big fat quarter notes that first erupt around the 5:15 mark. It is what Leonard Bernstein would have called “a fact” (“Beethoven always started with a fact,” Bernstein once wrote about the first notes of the “Eroica”’s first movement). The interval between the two notes is a fourth, a span that, if played simultaneously to form a chord, would be neither minor nor major. In a song full of subtlety, it’s a striking change of tone, as if Beethoven is trying to shock us back into processing the terrible idea (or fact) of death.

In his book The Infinite Variety of Music, Bernstein points out that the movement’s coda provides a brief moment of peace and respite before the last handful of measures, a reprise of the main march melody that “break[s] up into fragments before our eyes, like the speech of one so overcome by grief that he can speak only in halting, gasping efforts.” For this reason among others, the “Eroica” funeral march was a fitting choice for the moments after Kennedy’s death. Leinsdorf had many funeral marches to choose from, and his decision to pick this ambiguous, unsettled, sadly beautiful piece was one that acknowledged that everyone in that room was struggling with the unthinkable.

The choice is also a testament to how much of a unifying force Beethoven can be. After Shisler distributed the sheet music to the orchestra, he hurried to his usual listening spot at the back of the first balcony. He, like many others in the room, cried, not only because the president had died, but because, as he noted years later, “It’s such beautiful music anyway.”


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