How the London Symphony Narrowly Avoided the Titanic

Email a Friend

The centenary of Titanic's doomed maiden voyage has put a renewed focus on the bravery of the eight musicians who performed but ultimately perished during the maritime disaster.

Meanwhile, a much larger group of musicians narrowly avoided a similar fate. The London Symphony Orchestra had been scheduled to sail on the RMS Titanic in 1912, in what was the first United States tour by a British orchestra. The trip was sponsored by the instrument-manufacturing arm of Boosey & Hawkes, which agreed to give the musicians a full set of brass instruments to play if they made the journey that would span 21 days, 23 cities and 32 concerts.

The LSO, of course, did not sail on the Titanic but on another ship, the SS Baltic. The orchestra has previously attributed this change of plans to capricious American concert presenters, who at the last minute rescheduled some of its concert dates. Yet new details have emerged that give a fuller account of the life-saving decision.

Gareth Davies, the LSO’s principal flutist, explained in an interview that the change began when another ship, the RMS Olympic, collided with a British naval warship off the coast of England in Sept. 1911. The Olympic was badly damaged and in order to get it back into service as soon as possible, workers who had been finishing the Titanic were called off their jobs to assist. This delayed the Titanic's maiden voyage from March 20 to April 10, 1912.

"Obviously with such a big liner, it was their flagship and they had to get it back into service as quickly as possible,” said Davies. But the LSO's concert dates were already in place and the orchestra was not about to upend its tour.

"So they had to go on the Baltic instead, which was the real reason they never got on the Titanic,” said Davies. “It was really because the White Star Line changed it and not because the LSO schedule changed.”

The LSO, conducted by Artur Nikisch, went on to travel across North America in a chartered eight-car Pullman train. Visits were made to cities on the East Coast and through the Midwest, as well as Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. It was while the orchestra was in St. Louis on April 16 that they learned of the disaster of the Titanic (right).

A diary kept by the timpanist Charles Turner recorded the moment: “We hear here about the White Star line ‘Titanic’ going down. It causes great concern,” the terse entry read (the LSO is maintaining a Twitter feed of Turner's diary excerpts).

Davies noted that a second flute player in the orchestra, who was also keeping a diary of the trip, was good friends with a cellist in the Titanic band. "His diary trails off and becomes very matter of fact after that,” said Davies.

Indeed, when the orchestra musicians learned off the disaster, "they must have had a shiver go down their spine when they realized how close they came to being on it,” Davies added.

The return trip to England was reportedly harrowing. The ship was delayed a day to begin with, and because of storms, fog and icebergs, it required an extra day's travel. “They were obviously very jittery,” said Davies. “Everybody had to be locked below deck. I’m sure [the Titanic] must have been in the back of their minds. It could not have been."

The LSO performed in a memorial concert at the Royal Albert Hall on May 24, 1912 for those who lost their lives on the Titanic, alongside six of London’s other main orchestras at the time. A team of conductors led the concert including Edward Elgar, Henry Wood and Willem Mengelberg, and the soprano soloist was Ada Crossley.

The LSO did not travel to the U.S. again until 1964.

Listen here to an hour-long special featuring music and stories related to the Titanic centenary.