Echoes of the Titanic

A Program of Music and Stories on Sunday, April 15 at 12 pm

Friday, April 13, 2012

Among the stories of bravery and heroism during the Titanic disaster, none is more fascinating than that of the ship’s eight musicians, who continued to play on the deck even as the ship was going down. The performers saw it as their call of duty to provide comfort, even as they sacrificed their own chances of escape.

It’s one of several stories explored in this one-hour program about classical music's connection to the Titanic on Sunday, April 15 -- 100 years to the day after the infamous maritime disaster.

The story of music and the Titanic went beyond the actual disaster, however. It starts with the memorial concerts organized in England and the United States in the months afterwards, and continues today, with composers who find inspiration in the story.

The On-Board Bands

If you had been a passenger aboard the Titanic, you would have heard music. The White Star Line, the owners of the ship, hired bandmaster Wallace Hartley and seven other musicians to provide entertainment during the voyage. They formed two on-board ensembles playing music as a quintet and trio. Most of it was what could be described as parlor music – lighter fare ideal for dancing and dining. But they also played classical selections, such as Strauss Waltzes and opera arrangements for first-class diners.

The most poignant -- and yet debatable -- part of the Titanic story concerns the last music that was heard as the ship sank. Christopher Ward is the author of And the Band Played On and the grandson of Jock Hume, one of the violinists in the group. He says the musicians kept things upbeat after the collision with the iceberg, potentially playing Ragtime that was part of the band’s songbook.

"Early on they played ragtime to cheer the passengers as they were putting their life preservers on," he said. “But as the last of the life boats was loaded and the people left on the ship realized they were going to die, they started playing hymns to comfort people rather than cheer them up.

“Wallace Hartley was a deeply religious man, and one of the regular hymns played in chapel at times like this was ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ It was in the White Star Line music book but, more importantly, it was in his DNA as a boy who was brought up in the choir in his hometown church in Lancashire... It’s a very poignant hymn and it’s hard to listen to even now without feeling quite emotional.”

There is actually some dispute over what was played in those final minutes. Survivors recalled hearing other pieces as the lifeboats rowed away – including "Songe d’Automne" (Dream of Autumn).

“It seemed from witnesses reports the last song was ‘Autumn,’” said Ian Whitcomb, who put together the 1998 CD “Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage.” He argues that a hymn like “Nearer My God to Thee” would have been too alarming to passengers, and that “Autumn” was a bit more upbeat. “If I was leading band the last thing I’d want to do is cause alarm. I’d play something a little bit brighter.”

We will never truly know what the band played that night. But we know that the bandleader Wallace Hartley and his men kept playing as long as they were able, to the end trying to comfort the passengers -- and themselves. 

In spite of the musicians’ bravery, when the White Star Line calculated its payment to their families, it cut off the salaries at 2:20 am when the ship sank. Ward recalls the other indignities his grandfather’s parents endured. “His father got a bill for the brass buttons and epaulets on his uniform, even before confirmation of his death,” he said. “When they asked if his body may be brought home they were told that normal cargo rates would apply.”

London Memorial Concert

As word spread about the bravery and sacrifice of the Titanic’s band, Hartley and his men became regarded as heroes. On May 24, 1912, the Orchestral Association in London helped organize what was called “The Titanic Band Memorial Concert” at Royal Albert Hall.

The concert program featured no fewer than seven different orchestras with seven different conductors, including Edward Elgar, Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham.

The program included an arrangement of Chopin’s funeral march; Elgar conducting his own Engima Variations; “O rest in the Lord,” from Mendelssohn’s Elijah; several excerpts from the operas of Wagner (including, curiously, the Ride of the Valkyries); the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 and Arthur Sullivan’s In Memoriam overture.

The concert at Royal Albert Hall concluded on a solemn note – with “God Save the King” and, as a fitting tribute to the Titanic band, “Nearer My God To Thee.” (Above: A memorial to the Titanic musicians in Southampton, England).

New York Memorial Concert

The Titanic never reached New York, its original destination. Of its more than twenty-two hundred passengers and crew, just about seven hundred survived the wreck. They were picked up by the Carpathian and arrived in New York three days later, met by a crowd of more than forty thousand.

As in England, New Yorkers were quick to set up charities for the survivors and the families of the victims.

On April 29, 1912, the Metropolitan Opera House hosted a benefit concert that raised more than $12,000. “I think it was a very formal affair and very serious, and it was under the patronage of President Taft and the Duke and Duchess of Connaught,” said Robert Tuggle, the director of archives at the Metropolitan Opera. "It began with excerpts from Brahms’ German Requiem, and went on.  The first half of the program is much more serious than the second... And the things that people paid to hear did not take place until the second half of the program.

The main attractions that night were the Scottish soprano Mary Garden and Enrico Caruso (above, right), who sang The Lost Chord, a piece that Arthur Sullivan – of Gilbert and Sullivan – wrote at the bedside of his dying brother. (See a slideshow of images from the program below.)

There was also another group of musicians connected to the Titanic disaster. The London Symphony Orchestra had been scheduled to sail on the Titanic for what was to be the first United States tour by a British orchestra.

The LSO, in the end, did not sail on the Titanic but on a different White Starline ship, the SS Baltic because of another maritme accident.

Music Inspired by the Titanic

Almost immediately after the Titanic sank, the story of the ship and its ill-fated maiden voyage found its way into popular song, including “My Sweetheart Went Down on the Ship," "Just as the Ship Went Down" and “The Sinking Titanic.”

Contemporary composers have also found inspiration in the ship's story.

Gavin Bryars is an English composer whose The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) is one of his earliest works and one of the most famous contemporary pieces about the Titanic. The piece imagines the sound of the band’s final hymn, underwater, reverberating through the ocean, repeating over and over, until it finally reemerges at the surface. Bryars overlays sounds like Morse code distress signals played on wood blocks and the voices of survivors for an other-worldly effect (listen to the April 2011 performance from the Guggenheim Museum, left).

The composer Richard Kastle also drew inspiration from the history of the Titanic. Each movement of his Third Symphony seeks to tell a different story about the voyage. The third movement is about Ida and Isidor Strauss, the latter of whom was the co-owner of Macy’s department store. Ida Strauss refused to get into a lifeboat without her husband, reportedly saying to Isidor, “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.” 

Yet perhaps the most popular orchestral music written about the Titanic comes from film. As early as 1912 – the same year as the disaster – filmmakers began to retell the Titanic story. The movies have gotten increasingly sophisticated and now, for example, you can watch the sinking of the Titanic in 3D.

Even though Hollywood lets us witness the tragedy ever more vividly, what really brings these films to life is the music. James Horner won an Oscar for his score to James Cameron’s “Titanic” and the movie soundtrack sold more than 27 million copies worldwide – making it one of the best-selling film soundtracks of all time.

Echoes of the Titanic is a production of WQXR in New York. Elliott Forrest is our host. The production team includes Matt Abramovitz, Jenny Houser, Margaret Kelley, Ryan Lohr, Rob Weisberg and Brian Wise. Additional Web production by Kim Nowacki.

The New York Memorial Program (April 29, 1912):

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
The program from the April 29, 1912, benefit performance at the Metropolitan Opera House for families of victims of the Titanic disaster.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
President Taft and the Duke and Duchess of Connaught.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
Written on the bottom right: "To the memory of the musicians of the Titanic by Henry Hutt."
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
On the right, a reproduction of the commemorative post card that was sold.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
Capt. Rostrum and the S.S. Carpathia.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
'Women and Children First' by T.H. Hény.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives
Sketches by John B. Thayer, Jr., from one of the Titanic's life rafts.

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Comments [9]

John Rankmore from Harrow England

I have just located and thoroughly enjoyed Echoes of the Titanic, better
late than never.A most varied interesting and moving programme so well
arranged and presented.Thank you to Mr Forrest and all the production
team.

Mar. 17 2013 04:36 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

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.
Website: WagnerOpera.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 and 20 other selections.

Apr. 16 2012 07:58 PM
Phyllis Herman

Kudos to Elliot Forest and the people behind the scenes for such a moving portrait of a tragic event.

A very happy supporter of WQXR.

Apr. 16 2012 05:20 PM
Michael Shindler from Lynbrook, Long Island

As a former Titanic Historical Soceity member I would like to compliment Elliot Forest on the fine program on the Music of the Titanic. I conducted a program on the great ship and concluded it with a playing of " Autumn " which I firmly believe was the last selection that was heard prior to the breaking-up and sinking of the ship. How fitting that it was playing in the backround at the end of the show.

Apr. 15 2012 10:49 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Congratulations to Mr. Forrest and the entire production team on an excellent and moving tribute. While we will never know what the last piece Titanic's "band" rendered, my opinion and the opinion of the producers of the 1958 classic "A Night To Remember" offered the British version of "Nearer My God To Thee" rather than the more well-known tune of Boston's Lowell Mason. As RMS Titanic was a British ship, this is a logical conclusion if in fact this was the piece played. Other survivors mention "Autumn" so the debate continues. The 1912 recording of Enrico Caruso singing Sullivan's "The Lost Chord" was incredible and I'm curious if anyone else realized Mr. Caruso was accompanied by the studio band and not orchestra? It is quite possible that recording session was lead by Arthur Pryor, John Philip Sousa's former solo trombonist and assistant conductor. Being a Titanic "buff" for many years leads me to make this one observation regarding this wonderful broadcast - Titanic's rescue ship was the Carpathia, not Carpathian. Perhaps one of the producers had "Californian" on their mind as this was the ship not more than ten miles away at the time of the collision.

Apr. 15 2012 08:35 PM
SteveNYC

I enjoyed this very much. Another thank you to Mr. Forrest and the team that produced this program.

Apr. 15 2012 04:17 PM
Susan Gutterman from Manhattan

Thank you for an excellent & thoughtful show. Good work, Elliot Forrest.

Apr. 15 2012 01:22 PM
BC - Brooklyn from Brooklyn

In thinking about the 100th anniversary of the Titanic, I thought about the people who frequently sailed to and fro, across the Atlantic, pre-trans-atlantic airplane days. One of those was my grandfather who, quite wealthy, headed an insurance agency with offices in London and NYC. He wooed my grandmother in Prospect Park, and left a cache of wooing love letters for his offspring, which I still have. One of them is a long, long letter to his intended [my grandmother], aboard the RMS Mauretania, on shipboard stationery, sailing out of NY Harbor, ca. April 24, 1912. He includes a memorial concert on April 26th in remembrance of the victims of the "Titanic" [sic], plus a benefit for the Seamen's Charities. Madame Luisa Tetrazzini, assisted by Miss [sic] Emma Trentini and Miss Leopoldine Konstantin performed selections from Samson et Dalila [Saint-Saens]; "Ave Maria" [Gounod]; Recitations: "Tempora Mutantur" [Baumbach]; "Heidenroeschen" [Goethe];vilin solo: "Meditation" from "Thais" [Massenet];plus others [a lot], ending with the March from "Tannhauser" [Wagner]. There are a lot of people listed on committee, headed by a Leslie M. Shaw.

The Mauretania looks bizarrely just like the Titanic on the letterhead. Just thought I'd share this with your listeners. I, for one, am always amazed at things like this.

Apr. 15 2012 12:51 PM
Athanassios E. Tyrpenou from Thessaloniki, GREECE

Thank you WQXR for the invitations, I will!
A.E.Tyrpenou

Apr. 13 2012 04:28 PM

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