December 7, 1941

November 22, 1963

September 11, 2001

There are others, of course. We all know, either historically or in real time, what happened or where we were on those dates. Tragedy often takes the form of a lingering memory, indelibly etched in our collective souls.

It was about two in the afternoon in London. I was getting in a taxi, headed to Maida Vale, where I was going to write a speech for my first Last Night of the Proms. The driver had the radio on, but it was speaking softly. I could only make out a few words.

“Twin Towers.” “Terrorist Attack.” “Panic in the Streets.”

I asked the driver to turn the sound up and, as with the rest of the world, was thrust into the Twilight Zone. How could one absorb this information? What was going on?

By the time I got to the BBC studios and offices, it was clear that the world was now in turmoil. I felt like an enormous bag of sand had been put on me and I could barely walk into the building. My first order of business was to call my family in Washington D.C. The mobile phone was not going through and no calls of any kind could be placed to the States.

Fortunately, the internet was functioning. At that time, my wife was not proficient with the world-wide web, so I contacted my assistant at the National Symphony Orchestra, where I was the music director. She was able to get in touch and I was assured that things were fine. At this point, a third wave was directed at the Pentagon, located about ten miles away from my home.

Still dazed, I spent the next hour or so discussing what we might do for the concert four days later. My first thought was to withdraw from the event, to give the administration other possibilities.

“Leonard. You are the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony. You need to lead this program.”

So said Nicholas Kenyon.

We worked tirelessly over the next several hours and by the time I left the building, we had come up with a workable solution, one we knew would not please everyone. This was not the time for celebratory and frivolous music. Decorum and a degree of gravitas needed to be maintained.

Through all this, my main thoughts turned to all those in New York and D.C. The disassociation of being away from home had never been this strong in all my years on the planet. I felt empty and powerless. But there was a job to do, and it is in times of stress that one turns into a professional machine, albeit with great underlying emotion.

That night, I went to dinner with a good friend, another American who felt displaced on this day. We engaged in conversation with others at the restaurant, people from disparate parts of the world. As we continued throughout the evening, one thing became patently clear: Whenever we got home, we would not be returning to the same country we left a week earlier.

The Prom itself has been written about, discussed, and examined time and time again. In particular, the performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings has become the most viewed piece of classical music on YouTube. More than likely, many are watching it again, or perhaps for the first time. Even though that performance took place a few days after the horrific attack, the work is forever associated with solemnity and sad occasions.

Whether the loss of life at Pearl Harbor, the assassination of J.F.K, or the fall of the World Trade Center, the losses we endure will always stir up memories and with those, usually music plays a part as well. We continue to mourn those who perished, but we will never forget their unwitting sacrifice. May they rest in peace.

Also from the 2001 Last Night:

The night before 9/11: