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June 6 & 8, 1968: Bernstein, Mahler, and Remembering Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy

Nothing could be emotional or passionate enough to express that moment.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy died early the morning of June 6, 1968, a day after he was shot.

At the funeral two days later, Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in Gustav Mahler’s heartrending “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5.

Listen to an excerpt of the “Adagietto,” recorded live at the funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on June 8, 1968:

Afterwards, Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Bernstein — a letter Alex Ross dubbed the “thank-you note of the century” — describing the ceremony for her late husband’s brother, and thanking him for his contribution to it:

When your Mahler started to fill (but that is the wrong word — because it was more this sensitive trembling) the Cathedral today — I thought it the most beautiful music I had ever heard. I am so glad I didn’t know it — it was this strange music of all the gods who were crying. And then — if only you could have seen it — it was the time when Ethel had thought of the most touching thing — having the littlest nephews and nieces, small children, before that terrifying array of Cardinals and gold and Gothic vaults, carry all the little vessels for Communion up to the high altar, so that they could have some part in the farewell to the uncle they all loved so much. They were so vulnerable — and your music was everything in my heart, of peace and pain and such drowning beauty. You could just close your eyes and be lost in it forever….

A 1968 British Pathé newscast about the funeral estimated that about 5,000 people an hour walked through the cathedral to pay respects to Senator Kennedy.

In a 1969 interview about Robert Kennedy, Bernstein said to Jean Stein:

It was just a movement from Mahler’s Fifth, but it’s of particularly poignant intensity, and it’s just exactly the right music for this occasion… even, perhaps, too emotional, or passionate. But somehow nothing could be emotional or passionate enough to express that moment.

Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy III less than five years earlier (November 22, 1963).

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