Titanic band of courage: the story of the doomed ship's musical heroes
On the night of 15 April 1912, one of the most heroic performances in history was witnessed, as the musicians of the Titanic carried on playing despite their inevitable fate. Andrew Green tells their story
Wallace Hartley’s was possibly the largest of all the heart-wrenching funerals which took place after the Titanic tragedy.
Thanks in large part to the crass insistence of the ship’s owner, White Star Line, that cargo rate be paid for transporting recovered bodies back across the Atlantic, Titanic bandmaster Hartley was the sole victim of the disaster to be returned to the UK.
The hearse bearing his rosewood casket wound a 59-mile mourner-lined journey from Liverpool docks to the Bethel Chapel in Colne, Hartley’s home town, where the funeral service took place. The crowd in and around the chapel was estimated at 40,000, half as much again as the town’s population.
The subsequent procession to Colne Cemetery was half a mile long, embracing five brass bands, the Colne Orchestra, the Bethel Choir and boy scout buglers whose delivery of the Last Post ‘… went rolling through the valley and came back again, loth to be done.’
Hartley’s life-story was pored over by the press. One poignant angle cited his regrets at moving to White Star Line from Cunard. This meant working out of Southampton rather than Liverpool – much further away from his fiancée, Maria Robinson, who ‘shook visibly’ during the funeral.
What happened to the Titanic band?
The plight of the Titanic ‘band’ as a whole (none survived and the bodies of only three of the eight players were recovered), meanwhile, captured imaginations worldwide. Like the boy who stood on the burning deck in Felicia Dorothea Hemans’s ubiquitous poem, they had declined to save their own souls, continuing to play in order to calm passengers.
More like this
London’s classical music community duly paid homage to them in an extraordinary Royal Albert Hall concert in late May 1912, for the Titanic Relief Fund. Around 500 players from seven London orchestras were conducted variously by Henry Wood, Edward Elgar (directing his Enigma Variations), Thomas Beecham, Percy Pitt, Landon Ronald, Fritz Ernaldy, and Dutchman Willem Mengelberg, ‘… who had travelled expressly from Berlin to lend his assistance,’ said The Times.
For the event, Wood orchestrated the hymn ‘Nearer My God to Thee’. This had instantly became one of the touchstone symbols for the tragedy. Newspapers even printed the music.
What did the Titanic band play as it sank?
A number of survivors said they recalled members of the band playing ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ as the ship’s demise became imminent. A visit to the Library of Congress’s website of historic recordings allows listeners to hear three renderings of ‘Nearer My God’ released soon after the sinking.
The old question of just what was being played in those last moments of Titanic’s life is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. For a start, which of the at least three tunes then in use for ‘Nearer My God’ might have been played? (Those Library of Congress recordings, and Henry Wood, opted for ‘Horbury’).
Or were the musicians playing the hymn tune ‘Autumn’, as some claimed? Or had they mistaken it for the hit number Songe d’Automne? The point, though, is that because of the stereotyped image of their musical role on that terrible night, jollying-up passengers with ragtime and consoling them with hymns, the Titanic musicians have tended to be identified with ‘lesser’ music.
In fact, their job on board was to play a mind-boggling range of musical styles and genres culled from the White Star Line’s in-house music book, with classical music a part of the mix. Some survivors reckoned they’d heard opera being played on the sinking deck. Memories of what was performed the evening immediately before the iceberg loomed out of the night include music by Puccini, Offenbach, Léhar, Tchaikovsky and Dvoπák.
It’s been argued that some of the small ensemble music on tap reflected the huge success in that genre of genial Austrian virtuoso violinist Fritz Kreisler. His Schön Rosmarin and Liebesleid were in the music book.
Standard references to the Titanic musicians as the ship’s ‘band’ also give a false impression. One of their White Star Line musical colleagues, a clearly sensitive John Carr, insisted that ‘… the term is a survival of the days when [ships] really had a brass band on board. On all big steamships now the music is given by men who are thorough masters of their instruments.’
Who was in the Titanic band and what instruments did they play?
Steve Turner’s valuable work on the Titanic musicians has brought them vividly to life: Wallace Hartley (violin), John Woodward (cello), George Krins (violin), John Clarke (double bass), Percy Taylor (piano), Roger Bricoux (cello), Theo Brailey (piano) and John Hume (violin). Not very ‘band-like’, then. On board Titanic, they split into two ensembles, of five and three, for differing (and demanding) duties.
Two of the eight, Bricoux and Krins, were talented enough to have been to respected conservatoires. The others couldn’t boast such lofty backgrounds, being mainly locally trained, but several came from highly musical families and had emerged via the complex, vibrant network of professional music-making nationwide, from competent municipal orchestras to engagement at restaurants, cafés, hotels and bandstands.
Wallace Hartley, who learned the violin in a Methodist day school, had successively played with orchestras in Huddersfield, Harrogate and Bridlington, also being engaged by the nationally known Carl Rosa and Moody-Manners opera companies. Cellist John Woodward played plenty of serious stuff with the Duke of Devonshire’s private orchestra. Georges Krins appeared at the Ritz Hotel in London – employment not to be sniffed at.
A musical life on the ocean waves was simply another way of earning a living. Any number of passenger ships carried musicians at the time of the Titanic sinking. The irony is that by 1912, those working for the major lines were in thrall not to uncultured entrepreneurial sharks… but a pair of highly musical ones.
Liverpool concert agent brothers, Charles and Frederick Black, had played for the Hallé and Liverpool Philharmonic orchestras respectively. They negotiated classic shut-out deals with all the major shipping lines, guaranteeing a fixed price per musician. Result: a massive cut in wages and hence the need for players to be all the more dependent on tips. The Titanic musicians might have been paid above the usual rate to ensure a quality band for the maiden voyage, but we still see Hartley in a last letter home suggesting that on Titanic
‘… there ought to be plenty of money around.’
After the disaster, the Blacks infamously deducted 14s 7d from wages they owed to the deceased John Hume to meet an outstanding bill for cleaning and altering his uniform. And they successfully fought off a court case brought by the families of three of the musicians for money to be paid via the terms of the 1897 Workmen’s Compensation Act – the judge, while sympathetic to the families’ cause, found that as the Titanic musicians’ official employers (rather than White Star Line) the Blacks could hardly be blamed for the terrible accident. As a result, the musicians’ bereaved families were often significantly dependent on handouts from the Titanic Relief Fund, plus cash from collections and donations from branches of the Amalgamated Musicians Union.
The musical dimension to the catastrophe (including the loss of five grand pianos, two uprights and an Aeolian electric organ) could nonetheless have been so much worse. The London Symphony Orchestra was initially booked on Titanic before its North American touring schedule was brought forward – well might LSO timpanist Charles Turner have written with stiff-upper-lipped understatement of the ‘great concern’ expressed by orchestra members at news of the disaster.
And as the LSO’s tour progressed, musicians across the Atlantic threw their efforts into fundraisers to benefit those affected by the tragedy. The Metropolitan Opera in New York raised a substantial $12,000 via a special concert, taking advantage of the fact that Enrico Caruso and Mary Garden were in town. After doses of largely solemn music by the likes of Brahms, Puccini, Mascagni, Bach and Mendelssohn, Caruso reprised the piece he had recorded that very morning for the Victor Talking Machine Company: Arthur Sullivan’s consolatory The Lost Chord.
Did any of the instruments survive?
The allure of the Titanic story remains as compelling as ever. One of the most evocative of all artefacts to survive was Wallace Hartley’s violin. The story goes that he entered the water with violin case strapped to chest. The instrument, we’re now told, miraculously survived unharmed by the water and was returned to Hartley’s grieving fiancée… a relative of whom has now reportedly come forward with the evidence.
Not for sale, though, is a 1912 violin created in memory of Hartley by one Arthur Lancaster of Colne. Now in the possession of the Burnley Youth Orchestra, the fiddle carries a portrait of Hartley in oils on its back… and the inscribed words of ‘Nearer My God To Thee’. Its moment in the limelight came in 2010, featured in the Liverpool premiere of David Bedford’s The Wreck of the Titanic, which recreated the ship’s band of eight professional players in combination with a youth chorus and orchestra.
Times have changed. Ships plying the North Atlantic route are safer from iceberg collision. But ships still sink… and music can come to mind as panic spreads. In 1999 the cruise liner Sun Vista caught fire in the Strait of Malacca and began its own slow descent to the briny deep. What did many on board apparently warble to raise spirits before safety was assured? ‘My Heart Will Go On’, as sung by Celine Dion for the movie Titanic. Of course.
Images © Getty Images