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JFK: Bernstein to Beach Boys


On Nov. 22, at Trinity Church, the Trinity Choir and Orchestra marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination with a concert including Herbert Howells’s magnificent “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing,” composed for a 1964 JFK memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral. Howells’ motet was one of a number of classical-music tributes: Igor Stravinsky’s “Elegy for J.F.K.,” Roy Harris’s “Epilogue to Profiles in Courage,” Darius Milhaud’s “Meurtre d'un grand chef d'état.” Hearing the news in Berlin, Roger Sessions began writing his Piano Sonata no. 3 (“Kennedy”). Leonard Bernstein, then finishing his Symphony no. 3 (“Kaddish”), dedicated it to Kennedy’s memory.

The pop reaction was more complicated. Some famous examples came later — Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” for instance, was written in 1964, but only became a hit after its 1965 re-release; Dion’s recording of Dick Holler’s “Abraham, Martin, and John” looked back at a bloody decade from the vantage of 1968. (Blues and gospel tributes to JFK also appeared — Son House’s “President Kennedy” and the Dixie Nightingales’ “Assassination” being two more notable entries.)


But two songs written in the murder’s more immediate aftermath took divergent paths. “In the Summer of His Years,” a folk-tinged memorial by Herb Kretzmer and David Lee, was performed by Millicent Martin on the BBC series “That Was the Week That Was” the day after Dallas. Within two weeks, Mahalia Jackson and Connie Francis also recorded the song, but none of the versions made more than middling impact: the sense of a hasty capitalization on a national tragedy was too strong.

On Nov. 22, 1963, the Beach Boys — after a moment of silence observed by the crowd — went on with their scheduled show in Marysville, California. Later, at the hotel, Brian Wilson and Mike Love decided to try and write a tribute to Kennedy. (“It was a spiritual night,” Wilson later recalled. “We got going and a mood took over us.”) The result, “The Warmth of the Sun,” didn’t make any reference to JFK at all, but the ballad’s elegiac character — deftly slipping between parallel major and minor — foreshadowed the lush poignancy the group would achieve at its height. The memorial might have turned oblique, but the song proved a winsome pop masterpiece.


Trinity Church Boston presents “JFK — A Concert in Memory and in Hope,” Nov. 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $10-50;

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at