As a writer, I try to avoid spending time just repeating the words and messages of other people. I try to contribute something unique and meaningful to any conversation I participate in. If I can’t provide some unique perspective, then I at least try to amplify or clarify things as I see them.
On this fiftieth anniversary of the assassination I have resolved to not join in with the chorus of folks to repeat my own version of “where I was when I got the news” stories. However, I do think I will add a few comments to the current conversation.
I was twelve years old in November of 1963. I was in the seventh grade. It was a time of transition for me. I had left the familiar environment of elementary school and was starting my junior high school experience. Desegregation was already well underway. I went from an elementary school with a handful of very courageous trailblazing black students to my junior high school where the racial mix included a much higher percentage of students of color.
The student body of my junior high school was diverse in many ways besides race. There were students who lived in the country, students who were from economically deprived back grounds and of course in the seventh through ninth grade age groups, there was a vast range of sexual maturity.
For me, there was a feeling of change that was almost palpable. The space program, the nationwide fitness program and the cultural changes reflected in the movies, literature and music of that era were all in full swing. A year earlier, John XXIII had opened the Second Vatican Council to “air out the church” and set Catholicism on a more engaging course. In my twelve-year-old mind, all of this societal change was connected and interrelated.
On a more personal level, my own physical chemistry was in the throes of that radical change known as growing up and turning into an adult.
Change was in the air. It was scary, it was at times intimidating and it was frequently challenging. It was also quite exciting.
At the center of all that change, was Jack Kennedy. In my worldview, Jack Kennedy was a sort of agent of change. He seemed to me to be the guide or leader of many aspects of this great transition. He was the fellow inspiring us to embrace change and not to run from it; that adversity was also opportunity, that God had supplied us all with the toughness to persevere and prevail against life’s challenges. It was a valuable lesson.
It was also a time of optimism and hope. Even though the assassination did subdue that optimism, the era was still one of hope. No one knew what was in store for us over the next several years. No one understood that this murder in Dallas was just the first of many events that would come to define the times that we collectively refer as the ’60s.
In the year 1957 the broadway musical, “West Side Story” opened in New York. The play was successfully transformed into a movie in 1961. The music for West Side Story was composed by a young Leonard Bernstein with the script by Stephen Sondheim. The story is a sort of modern-day Romeo and Juliet set in mid fifties New York west side. A vast neighborhood of bubbling discontent, social injustice and rival gangs.
It is a beautiful piece of music, one that I loved from the very first time I heard it. Bernstein’s score is rich and complex. At the very end of the piece, in the closing bars of the musical, there is a short musical idea or device that is repeated over and over again. This little phrase, is heard off and on throughout the entire musical, especially in the very hopeful song Somewhere.
Musically, the phrase is simply a 2-3 suspension resolving into the tonic chord. It serves as a sort of final cadence for the musical. The resolution of the chord provides a shining kind of relief for the tension created by the dissonance of the suspension. It’s the kind of sound you would expect to hear as clouds dissipate to reveal a beautiful sunrise.
In counterpoint to that musical idea, Bernstein softly repeats a lower register dissonant chord to punctuate the sweeter resolution heard in upper register. The two ideas are repeated several times almost like tolling bells.
To me, that dissonant “tolling” has always seemed to be a foreshadowing of things to come. Like distant clouds on a horizon promising more rain and wind by morning. Tony and Nardo are dead, Maria is left with memories of her brother and her brash young prince.. The Jets and Sharks have spent their violent energy. It is peaceful at last. Except for the tolling. Except for that dissonance underneath, softly warning us that things are not yet resolved.
To me, the murder of President John F. Kennedy is the first of many tolling dissonances to come. To me it seems to say, bury this youthful idealistic young man, spill your tears, but know that more, much more is on the way.