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):