A Unique Perspective on Traumatic Shock

It was just another late autumn Friday afternoon. A New England autumn. A lovely time to be in Boston. Warm enough, with a high in the 50s.

The greatest shocks never warn.

Matinee symphony concerts, such as those of the Boston Symphony, are attended by more ladies than men. Surely, in the November audience, many from high society – the scions of colonial days – occupied the best seats. Old money, as they say.

The intermission concluded and Erich Leinsdorf, the orchestra’s Viennese Music Director, came on stage. His hands stilled the applause.

Leinsdorf had an announcement to make.

Relive the moment if you are courageous enough: the 53-word report of the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and, more remarkable, the audience’s reaction.

Countless TV and radio interruptions like this occurred, all with the same terrible news. None of the recordings of those broadcasts, however, carry the shock of Leinsdorf’s, because none allow us to hear a traumatized, horrified audience.

Some of the concert-goers knew Kennedy personally. Many had seen him close up. He was a son of their soil and their soul.

Before saying more, I will give you the opportunity to listen. Additional description, context, and analysis follow. Should you be afraid of the shock, however, you may want to read on first. One further word: I’ve included over a minute of the Boston Symphony broadcast before Leinsdorf speaks. I did this to put you in the mind of a Boston listener of the time, unprepared for the unimaginable. Leinsdorf begins to talk about a minute-and-a-half in:

Erich Leinsdorf gave two messages simultaneously, unwittingly. He was convinced Kennedy was dead, but conveyed uncertainty. The audience gasped. Then, before they could process the news – before they could admit to themselves that the President was gone – the orchestra began the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, a piece dedicated to the memory of a fallen hero. Music of consolation served, in this instance, to kill hope.

Perhaps those of you too young to remember the day cannot understand how Americans then felt, despite the more recent shocks you have known. No President had been murdered since William McKinley in 1901, 62-years before Kennedy. The closest previous U.S.A. horror was the Pearl Harbor invasion of December 7, 1941, 22-years before: before my generation, the Post WWII Baby Boomers, were born.

We were – we middle class white kids – yet untouched by national tragedy; a condition now lost in the wave of gun-related domestic massacres, the terrorist catastrophe of September 11, 2001; and subsequent (almost routine) calamities of so many kinds. By 1968, five years later, the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy had deflowered the virgin sensibilities of my age group. No wonder smoking marijuana became almost as common among us as saying hello.

On the other hand, if you grapple with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the inside, the audience reaction in Symphony Hall is within the range of your experience. And for those lucky enough not to have suffered such a blow, perhaps listening to this broadcast excerpt will bring you an inch closer to understanding what personal trauma is like.

At least, how it sounded 54-years ago.