The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What music does the assassination of JFK bring to mind for you today on the 50th anniversary of his death? | November 22, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (below), or JFK, in Dallas, Texas.

WH/HO Portrait

It was a momentous event in so many ways for the country. And like many of you, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news flash of his shocking death.

One of JFK’s legacy, one deeply encouraged and acted on by his First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, was to revitalize the American art scene and enhance it with involvement and help from the government.

That so now irks the conservative philistines who want to zero out the budgets for NPR, PBS, the NEA and the NEH, who want an ignorant citizenry that will buy into their distorted lies and mean-spirited stupidities.

But how fitting for the New Frontier was that quiet cultural revolution promoted by JFK during his short tenure in The White House.

Artists responded enthusiastically to JFK and his death. How I recall the music that was put together quickly and performed on the then relatively new medium of television. I think the requiems by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Verdi were performed and broadcast, as was Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” – a favorite of JFK and a work that was given its world premiere by the UW-Madison’s Pro Arte String Quartet in 1936. Gustav Mahler‘s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” were also performed.

Here is a link to a great story on NPR about what music was played in JFK’s hometown of Boston by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Erich Leinsdorf:

I remember the specific works that for me struck the right chords, so to speak, about the murderous death of the President.

One was the Requiem by Gabriel Faure (below). The whole work is so beautiful and gentle, peaceful and calm – and how we all needed beauty and gentleness, peace and calm, that awful weekend — and it was completely unknown to me.


I liked all the movements. “In Paradiso” was one. But I also liked the “Pie Jesu” and the “Libera me.” But what stuck me most and keeps resonating is the “Sanctus.” Here it is in a YouTube video, and be sure to read the comments from other listeners:

The other work I remember from those events is the “German” Requiem by Johannes Brahms (below). I had known it before. But this was when it took on real meaning.


I remember hearing and loving the movement “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place.” But the part that really got me choked up was not that one or the Funeral March or even the fabulous “Here on Earth We Have No Abiding City,” with its fabulous fugue “Death, Where Is Thy Sting; Grave, Where Is Thy Victory?.”

It was the final movement, “Blessed Are The Dead for Their Works Live on After Them.” I loved the secular, but respectful and even loving quality of the text and of course the music. That allowed it to appeal to the entire nation and to all people everywhere around the world, regardless of their faith or beliefs.

It seemed so fitting and so true, then; and it still does now.

Here it is:

What works of classical music come to mind for you when you think of that awful day in Dallas and terrible weekend in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago?

The Ear wants to hear.



  1. As my husband and I stood along Pennsylvania Avenue on that dark and chilling day, watching the caisson pass by, the only sound to be heard was the repetitive rhythm of the drums. I really don’t associate any music with that sad occasion. The crowd of thousands was very quiet.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — November 22, 2013 @ 11:07 pm

  2. Today I played Corigliano’s “Voyage For Flute & Orchestra” which describes a heaven filled with love and peace, etc. Also Franz Schubert’s “Song Of The Spirits Above The Waters” a setting of verse by Goethe about man being like the waters that come from heaven, return to heaven, and back again. Both are very beautiful, thought-provoking works.

    Frank Stowers, West Virginia Public Radio

    Comment by Frank Stowers — November 22, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

  3. I am reluctant to press a piece of music as having any direct connection with the Kennedy assassination and its wide-reaching import. But, for music of resolution and consolation–quite apart from any specific occasion, a personal favorite of mine has long been the second movement of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 3, the “Sinfonia expansive”. This movement is launched by an alternating confrontation between heaving strings and mournful woodwinds, but, after a transition to calm, turns into music of extraordinary serenity, even reconciliation, as the wordless voices of two singers weave into the orchestral textures. I find it one of the most redeeming pieces of music ever written.

    And then, of course, there is Mozart’s “Masonic Funeral Music”, which pits stormy unrest against the calm of a Gregorian Chant melody, leading to a resolution only on the final chord, a striking major, after so much minor mode. It is another masterpiece of redemptive music.

    John W. Barker

    Comment by John W. Barker — November 22, 2013 @ 11:06 am

  4. On Nov. 22,1983, in the first year of the Earl Administration, I arranged a small 20th-anniversary ceremony at noon in the Capitol Rotunda. The governor and others spoke and the late UW violinist Vartan Manoogian happily agreed to play. He chose a piece of Eastern European music that was a bit out of joint but was beautiful and sonorous under the dome. He also played “Danny Boy” for the slain Irishman.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — November 22, 2013 @ 10:09 am

  5. My parents played Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture all weekend long. It was a very sad, sober time.

    Comment by Ronnie — November 22, 2013 @ 9:09 am

  6. […] Classical music: What music does the assassination of JFK bring to mind for you today on the 50th an… ( […]

    Pingback by Online, a digital trove of JFK material | The Fifth Column — November 22, 2013 @ 7:32 am

  7. It remains even today a touching day

    Comment by Alfred Jakes — November 22, 2013 @ 2:15 am

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