How the London Symphony Narrowly Avoided the Titanic

Tuesday, April 10, 2012 - 05:31 PM

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.

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Comments [5]

GCL from Astoria NY

Actually yes, Steve. The sinking of the Lusitania by a U-Boat torpedo forced our hand that day. That's why we got involved.

The Lusitania and the Britannic were in fact related, but for the life of me I can't recall how.

Mar. 17 2013 02:02 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Serendipity, no one and no thing is ever totally predictable. Plane crashes have killed Will Rogers, Carole Lombard, Marcel Cerdon (Edith Piaf's lover), an Olympic gymnastic team, and in the mideast a country's leaders and the surnamy that wielded such horrific damage and tragedies to Japan. Yet, how may any story compete with the tragic fate of the TITANIC ocean liner TITANIC !!! The personal narratives Even members of that generation's one percent had empathy for others, especially their own kin, with devotion by spouses that is inspirational. Like all highly litigated, publicized events and things, the invincibility of the UNSINKABLE ocean liner TITANIC did not live up to its advance publicity. How many highly touted "items" REALLY match their images !!! I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer: "Shakespeare" & "The Political Shakespeare" & the director, the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques.
Websites: WagnerOpera.com, ShakespeareOpera.com, and RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com where one may download, free, 37 complete "Live from Carnegie Hall" selections that I have sung in four concerts, three of them three hours-long solo concerts and one a Joint Recital with the dramatic soprano Norma Jean Erdmann, in the main hall of Carnegie Hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, by opening up, downloading from the "Recorded Selections" venue on the home page. My next concert in New York will be on Saturday, June 9th at the YOGA EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel. The title of the concert is 'BRING HIM HOME, with that song from the musical LES MISERABLES, encouraging the return of our armed forces and inspiring hope and love of country with This Land is Your Land, The House I Live In, Climb Every Mountain, You'll Never Walk Alone, The Impossible Dream, Granada, Wien, Wien, nur du allein, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again and 19 other selections.

Apr. 17 2012 09:40 AM
Manny Nadelman

To say that the LSO narrowly avoided disaster on the Titanic makes no sense, since it was the Titanic's plan that changed. It can't be assumed that the Titanic would have met its historic fate had it sailed as originally scheduled.

Apr. 14 2012 04:14 PM
Steve Turner from London, England.

For the full story about the Titanic musicians read my book THE BAND THAT PLAYED ON. Steve Turner.

Apr. 11 2012 02:24 AM
SteveNYC

Baltic was not a sister ship of the Titanic. The three White Star Line Olympic class liners were Olympic, Titanic and Britannic (the last launched after the Titanic disaster and lost in WWI as a hospital ship before ever entering passenger service).

Baltic and her three sister ships were known as The Big Four and the others were Adriatic, Celtic and Cedric. They were the generation of White Star liners that preceded the Olympic class and were the among largest and most advanced liners afloat until the coming of the Cunard sisters Mauretania and Lusitania and then the Olympic class.

Apr. 10 2012 11:28 PM

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