Senator Kennedy’s Funeral: Notes from a Participating Musician

The site of Ted Kennedy's funeral: Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/people/87662778@N00)
The site of Ted Kennedy's funeral: Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/people/87662778@N00)

My friend Michael Calmes, a fine tenor up home in Boston, sent me these notes written by organist John Finney. Mr. Finney attended Senator Edward Kennedy‘s funeral as assistant to principal organist James David Christie.

John Finney writes:

The Kennedy family had contacted the Boston Symphony Orchestra office to arrange for the musicians for the service, and since Jim (James David Christie) is the organist for the Boston Symphony, it made perfect sense for him to play.

The organ at Mission Church is a magnificent instrument, located high up in a balcony at the rear of the church; the distance from the organ to the front of the church is practically one city block.

Because the mirror provided for the organist doesn’t have a full view of the church, Jim really needed an assistant to relay important information to him while he was playing, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do this for him!

Because of the huge numbers of dignitaries attending this funeral, the security measures were immense. All the streets in the area of the church were blocked off from 5:00 a.m. We were able to take a small shuttle bus from Symphony Hall which was provided for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and their conductor (John Oliver) who were also performing at the service.

We boarded the bus at 8:15 a.m., and were driven a short distance to a garage on Columbus Avenue.  Aides with large umbrellas met the bus. We were given tickets to gain admission into the church, and then went through a security line, then boarded another, larger bus which took us the short distance to the church.

We went directly to the organ loft, which we shared with about 25 camera men and women. The organ loft is not that big, so with all the cameras, laptops, phones and other equipment and personnel, there was barely enough room for the 16 singers from the Tanglewood Chorus!

I sat on the organ bench with Jim, directly in the center at the edge of the balcony, a perfect spot for watching the service. We were settled into the balcony shortly before 9:00 a.m. (the funeral was to begin at 10:30) and the church was already half full.

It was particularly interesting to be right next to the TIME photographer because he had a telephoto lens and could spot dignitaries in the front of the church much better than we could.

He was happy to share information with us, so we watched as he photographed Joan Kennedy, John McCain (in conversation with Arnold Schwarzenegger), the arrival of Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. and Laura Bush, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, and finally President Obama and the First Lady.

A chamber ensemble from the Boston Symphony played the Mozart Clarinet Quintet (from 9:50 to 10:20) which was unfortunately drowned out by the assembling throng. At 10:20, Jim was supposed to begin playing “fill” music until the arrival of Senator Kennedy’s casket. Jim had been told this would occur promptly at 10.30 a.m., and so he played a 9-minute composition of his own (a beautiful “Elegie” based on the chant “In Paradisum” from the funeral liturgy of the Catholic church).

When Jim reached the end of his “Elegy” at 10:29, the Kennedy family had not yet arrived at the church (we didn’t know until later that they hadn’t left the Kennedy library in Dorchester until nearly 10:15) and so Jim needed to improvise for quite a long time (mostly on the “In Paradisum” chant melody) while I gave him a play-by-play account of what was going on in the church.

Finally at nearly 10:45, the TV cameraman told us the hearse had just pulled up to the church, and Jim gradually increased the sound of the organ to a magnificent solemn march as the casket was brought intro the church.

It was an immensely powerful scene to witness the  entire congregation of 1500 people rise and turn toward the casket.

Father Monan, principal celebrant (and former President of Boston College) and the many other priests (along with Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston) came down from the altar to meet the casket in the middle of the church, and the funeral service began.

The opening hymn (“Holy God We Praise Thy Name”) with six verses and two organ interludes (played brilliantly by Jim) was sung as the immediatete family members took their seats at the very front of the church.

The music during the Offertory was a movement from a solo cello suite by Bach played by Yo-Yo Ma. During communion, there were three selections. The first was Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” sung by Placido Domingo, in a bizarre arrangement accompanied only be cello (played by Yo-Yo Ma).

“Panis Angelicus” would have sounded 100 times better with organ and cello (since the organ plays all the harmony in that piece), but Domingo had not arrived in time to rehearse with the organ on Friday night, and insisted on using the solo cello arrangement, probably because he was unwilling to trust that the ensemble with the organist would be successful. (So he missed out on being accompanied by one of the world’s great organists. Too bad, Placido!)

The second selection during communion was the beautiful motet by Brahms “Let Nothing Ever Grieve Thee” (sung in English) sung by 16 members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (there wasn’t room for any more singers; it would have sounded better with 50 or 60 singers, to be honest) conducted by John Oliver and accompanied by Jim with me turning pages).

The third and most beautiful selection was Schubert’s  “Ave Maria” sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham from the Metropolitan Opera, who sang like a goddess. Jim accompanied her on the organ, and their ensemble was perfect (even though she was at the front of the church and the organ was a block away in the balcony).

Following communion, Senator Kennedy’s two sons offered their reflections (so moving) and President Obama delivered the eulogy. After Cardinal O’Malley pronounced the final commendation, the clergy and immediate family accompanied the casket back down the aisle as the congregation sang “America the Beautiful” stirringly accompanied by Jim on the organ.

It had rained all through the service, and the rain at the end of the service (around 12:45) was torrential and so it took a very long time for everyone to exit the church. After “America the Beautiful” was finished, Jim played another of his compositions and then the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang “How Lovely is thy Dwelling Place” from the Brahms Requiem.

The whole experience was profoundly moving, and I felt extremely blessed to have had the honor to be there in person, along with our nation’s President, Vice-President, Secretary of State, three former presidents, numerous members of the Senate and House of Representatives and other dignitaries, and the large and devoted Kennedy family, all paying tribute to our great Senator.

John Finney (August 30, 2009)

-submitted by Christopher Purdy

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    Senator Kennedy’s Funeral: Notes from a Participating Musician

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    Senator Kennedy’s Funeral: Notes from a Participating Musician