Kennedy Memorial Albums

Few musical legends are more moving than the story of Mozart’s Requiem — of the gaunt stranger who came to the composer’s door, abruptly commissioned him to write a Requiem Mass, and kept coming back to ask him for it so often and so sternly that at last Mozart became convinced he had been ordered by some divine agency to write his own death song. The legend had a firmer basis of fact than most: the stranger turned out to be the emissary of a certain Count Walsegg, who had commissioned the Requiem secretly so he could palm it off as his own work. There is in existence a letter— its authenticity is in dispute — in which Mozart is said to have written to his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte: “I know from what I feel that the hour sounds; I am on the point of expiring; I have finished before having enjoyed my talent. Life was so beautiful, my career began under such favorable auspices, but none can change his destiny. Nobody can count his days, one must resign oneself, it will all be as Providence pleases and so I finish my funeral song, I must not leave it incomplete.”

But Mozart died, aged thirty-five, before he could finish his Requiem, and it had to be completed by his favorite pupil, one Süssmayer. It was the twin parallels of the early death and the unfinished work that led Erich Leinsdorf, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to select Mozart’s Requiem as the music for the Solemn Pontifical Requiem Mass in memory of President John F. Kennedy, celebrated by Cardinal Cushing at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston on January 19, 1964. It is highly unusual, in the United States at least, for a work such as the Mozart Requiem to be performed as an integral part of a Roman Catholic church service; but once the decision was taken, it was carried out in magnificent style. The proceedings were broadcast on nationwide television, and now they have been made available in a two-record RCA Victor alburn (LSC-7030, stereo; LM-7030, monaural). Proceeds will go to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library Fund in Boston.

Although recordings of the Mozart Requiem are no novelty, this one understandably possesses special qualities in both its setting and its sentiment. It begins with a tolling of bells and concludes with a recessional, and interspersed among its sections are the voices of Cardinal Cushing and the seminarians assisting him in the celebration of the Mass. At times the musical impact is heightened by the interpolation of the purely ritualistic portions, as when the clamors of Mozart’s Dies Irae burst upon the quiet plainsong Tractus intoned by the priests.

As befits the circumstances, Leinsdorf’s approach to the Requiem follows lines that are devotional as well as dramatic. The music unfolds with spaciousness and deliberation; no effort is made to strive after effect for its own sake. The soloists are Sara Mae Endich, soprano; Eunice Alberts, contralto; Nicholas DiVirgilio, tenor; and Mac Morgan, baritone. The choral groups participating are the Chorus pro Musica, the Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society, the New England Conservatory Chorus, and the St. John’s Seminary Choir — a total of nearly 200 singers, all of whom perform beautifully. As might be expected from a recording made in a church filled with 1800 listeners, the sound falls short of studio perfection; but it is more than adequate to convey the transcendent qualities of the performance. Indeed, the occasional coughing and rustling, the reverberations of the chants, the rising and falling of celebrants’ voices serve only to give this unique recording a sense of presence and immediacy.

Just as the RCA Victor album is a musical and liturgical commemoration of President Kennedy’s death, a release called Four Days That Shocked the World is an attempt to convey the actuality and the aftermath of the assassination in the words of onlookers and observers.

The record, issued on the Colpix label (CP-2500, monaural) and made in association with United Press International, draws largely on radio and television broadcasts between November 22 and 25, 1963, the period from the shooting in Dallas to the burial in Arlington.

It begins with the jocularity of Mr. Kennedy’s arrival in Fort Worth (he is heard jesting about himself as “the man who accompanies Mrs. Kennedy”) and concludes with the bugler blowing taps at Arlington — complete to the momentary crack on the high D that seemed to symbolize the nation’s heartbreak.

Four Days That Shocked the World, which might have been a shoddy and hasty affair, like so many of the Kennedy “memorial” records that were rushed out after the President’s death, is instead a skillfully edited re-creation of a weekend that still seems unbelievable in retrospect. Narration itself is held to a minimum; instead, the excitement, terror, and grief of the events are conveyed through the voices of announcers on the scene and of eyewitnesses. The record includes such ironic touches as a local broadcaster commenting before the assassination on the “unprecedented" security arrangements of the Dallas police. For the assassination itself, there is no attempt to embellish or smooth out an on-the-scene announcer’s stunned and confused account of what was happening before his disbelieving eyes. In fact, it is the obvious shock and anguish in the voices of the onlookers that make the Dallas drama seem so vivid and gripping. When Lee Oswald is killed in his turn, one hears not only the sound of the shot itself but the shouts of the police officers and a reporter’s awed “Holy mackerel!”

In addition to covering the violent events themselves, Four Days That Shocked the World offers excerpts from several eulogies to Mr. Kennedy, the swearing in of President Johnson, and a portion of the Washington memorial service and burial. Throughout, it represents a tasteful and responsible job of “audio journalism,” to use the producers’ own term for this technique.

Also in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Decca has issued a recording of the tribute to the President carried by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s television program That Was the Week That Was. the night of November 23 (DL-79116, stereo; DL-9116, monaural). The BBC tribute, which was prepared in twenty-four hours, was widely praised at the time and was re broadcast in the United States. The That Was the Week That Was broadcasters, who generally produce a satiric topical show, reacted with instinctive grief and professional skill by swiftly assembling a program of sober comment on the tragedy. In the context and climate of the event, much of what they said and felt undoubtedly seemed moving. But heard on a recording many weeks later, their comments — at least to this listener — seem rather lame, flat, and ordinary. There is little significance or eloquence in the opening comment that President Kennedy’s death was more shocking than Sir Winston Churchill’s would have been, or in the poem “To Jackie,” an almost embarrassing set of verses self-consciously read by Dame Sybil Thorndike. And a “folksong" specially written for the show, entitled In the Summer of His Years, sung by Millicent Martin, seems thoroughly synthetic and contrived.

The President’s death quite naturally is reflected in two records that are devoted to a compilation in sound of the memorable events of 1963. These are A Time to Keep: 1963 (RCA Victor LOC-1088, monaural) and History in Sound: 1963 Year in Review (Gateway GLP-9003, monaural). Although one of these documentaries comes from an industry giant and the other from a small independent, both are afflicted with the same two problems — a desire to leave nothing out, and an excess of words by the narrators.

Listening to announcers talking about great events is a far cry from experiencing, through sound, the events themselves. Even the descriptive talents of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, who are the commentators for Victor’s A Time to Keep, fail to hold the listener engrossed as they plow their way through a sketchy and kaleidoscopic succession of such disconnected events as the overturn in Vietnam, the approval of the nuclear-test-ban treaty, the Profumo affair, the death of Robert Frost, the World Series, the earthquake at Skoplje, the desegregation struggle in Birmingham, the start of 1964 presidential politicking, and many others. So numerous are the subjects that very few of them can be dwelt upon informatively or even interestingly, and there seldom is time for more than a few seconds of the voices or thoughts of the people involved.

There are exceptions, of course. Joe Valachi’s testimony about organized crime before a Senate committee, notably his description of the initiation ceremonies of the Cosa Nostra syndicate, provides both the Victor and Gateway recordings with a few graphic moments, not without their touches of grim humor. At the opposite extreme, the dignity and emotion of the Negro march on Washington last summer are powerfully depicted, especially in the Gateway recording with its excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address and its sound montage of the marchers singing. But such excerpts are all too fleeting, and the listener is immediately plunged into a resumption of the announcer’s portentous recital of the year’s chronology. In this kind of presentation even the story of the Kennedy assassination seems to lack the import and impact it has in Golpix’s Four Days That Shocked the World.

There is, however, one powerful passage in the RCA Victor record. Once more Mr. Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony are involved. The scene is an afternoon concert at Symphony Hall, and the recording tape has registered the voice of the conductor interrupting the program to tell the audience that a report has been received that the President of the United States has been the victim of an assassination. The gasps and cries of disbelief that go up in the crowded hall recapture as dramatically and movingly as anything else the shock and sorrow of those incredible days.