The night of April 14/15 1912 will be remembered as the night the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic sank. The ship struck an iceberg soon after 11.30 p.m. and it was gone by 2.20 a.m., with not enough lifeboats for the passengers and crew, women and children were placed into lifeboats that were scandalously nowhere near filled to capacity. More than 1500 people lost their lives, only 706 were saved.
Popular legend has it, that as the Titanic sank the band played till the end offering musical comfort to the terrified passengers. This was portrayed at the end of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) when they played the hymn Nearer, My God, to Thee and also in A Night to Remember (1958). Did the band play on as the ship went down? And did they play that much loved hymn? Or was it ‘Autumn’, another tune that a survivor heard the band play from their repertoire near their tragic end?
The band, portrayed in the film Titanic as a string quartet, were in reality a troupe of eight that played separately as a quintet and a trio, entertaining the illustrious passengers onboard through luncheons and dinners on the voyage; five musicians, led by bandleader Wallace Henry Hartley played in the first-class saloon and three in the ship’s restaurant – when not called to play together for special purposes.
Derby Daily Telegraph 20 April 1912
The Brave Orchestra
‘A Liverpool telegram says:- The orchestra of heroic musicians who played on the decks of the Titanic as the vessel was sinking, was composed as follows:- W Hartley, bandmaster; J Hulme, P C Taylor; J W Woodward; R Bricoux; E Clarke; W T Bailey.’
When news of the tragedy reached land the disaster was covered in minute detail by the press, eager to share details of the story with a public desperate for news. Stories of bravery were recorded and the reporting of the deaths of many of the Titanic’s passengers merged into obituaries, like in the Yorkshire Evening Post on Friday 19 April 1912. Wallace Hartley was ‘an artist to his finger tips. Modest, undemonstrative, he was quite oblivious to his surroundings while playing on his violin, and few local musicians have been known to put such intense feeling, such telling light and shade into the interpretation of the simplest ballad, as well as of the great masterpieces, as he was able to do.’
The following day the Yorkshire Evening Post stated that the band’s twenty-year-old French cellist, Roger Bricoux’s selection for the Titanic ‘proves that though young, he was an exceptionally fine artist. Clean shaven, with jet black hair, M. Bricoux was a handsome young fellow, though his gait had been somewhat affected by an accident on a motor bicycle. He belonged to a musical family, his father being chief horn player in the famous casino orchestra at Monte Carlo. His joviality, no less than his skill as a musician, made him exceptionally popular amongst those who made his acquaintance.’ Bricoux played in the trio that entertained the ship’s diners in the restaurant.
Again in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 20 April, a former colleague of Wallace Hartley, Ellwood Moody, both having worked on the RMS Mauritania totalling twenty-two voyages together, recalled that he asked him once, ‘What would you do if you were ever on a ship that was sinking? He replied, I don’t think I could do better than play Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past or Nearer, my God, to Thee. He was very fond of those hymns.’
Leeds Mercury Sat 20 April 1912
‘According to all the reports to hand, the part played by the orchestra on board the Titanic in the last dreadful moments will rank among the noblest in the annals of heroism at sea…
‘Calmly, as if in the concert room, they went on playing, while slowly the great ship dipped her bows deeper into the water, and one by one the lifeboats were launched. Then, when the last lifeboat had got clear away, as the floods of icy water crept higher and higher up the decks of the sinking ship, the tune was changed. Out over the dark waters there crept the moving strains of King Edward’s favourite hymn, Nearer, My God, to Thee. Never since the early Christian martyrs went to their death singing hymns has sacred music been heard in more moving and memorable circumstances.’
Titanic survivor Major Frank Prentice confirmed that the band did play Nearer, My God, to Thee as the ship foundered. Prentice was a young employee of the White Star Line at the time and was rescued from the water after dropping 100 feet from the stern of the ship in the final minutes before it sank. Eva Hart, seven at the time, was rescued along with her mother, also confirmed that the band played Nearer, My God, To Thee. She added that there were three versions and it was the version that would be played in church that was played on the Titanic. They played it in her local church one Sunday and she had to leave it in distress as the memories returned.
Honeymooning survivor, Mrs John Pillsbury Snyder, entered the first lifeboat to be lowered along with her husband. There seemed to be no objection to his joining her as the boat was under capacity and the other passengers were initially reluctant to leave the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic to enter a relatively unsafe lifeboat. She stated that the ‘orchestra kept playing Nearer, My God, To Thee all the time’. Mrs Maude Slocombe, who was a stewardess on board ‘in charge of the Turkish baths’ also heard Nearer, My God, To Thee from the band as the ship went down.
However, contrary to other survivors’ statements, and admittedly mine is a small cohort sample, Harold Bride, wireless operator onboard the Titanic, recorded in his compelling testimony that the last tune played was Autumn. He heard the band playing Ragtime whilst he was still in the wireless room and then Autumn later once he was on deck.
Whichever tune it was, the band did not play until they were overcome with water. Evidence shows they had time to pack their instruments away. Only three out of the eight musicians’ bodies were found. Wallace Hartley, the bandleader was picked up almost two weeks later with his case strapped to his body, inside which was his treasured violin, this probably helped keep his body buoyant. Hartley’s body was repatriated at the request of his broken-hearted father and is buried in Colne, Lancashire, England. The bodies of John Frederick Preston Clarke and John ‘Jock’ Law Hume were also recovered. Hume is buried in Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, whereas Clarke is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
It could be argued that the most popular notion of the hymn Nearer, My God, to Thee, being played is very likely as more survivors reported hearing this, however, countering this argument, the cacophony of screams and panic as people started entering the water with the noise of the ship nearing its end could muffle music, and with the lifeboats sailing away from the ship for safety makes it doubtful that the identification of a particular song can be determined. Indeed, some of those who entered the lifeboats, entered an hour or more before the ship sank and their memories may have been of the music playing whilst they were transferred to the lifeboats.
Both Song d’Autumne and Nearer, My God, To Thee, to my untrained ears, sound very similar in the opening bars, (depending on the version), and there could be understandable confusion of the two when listened to in the context of a tragedy playing out in front of you. Harold Bride’s assertion that it was Songe d’Autumne playing as the ship went down is uncorroborated, multiple other survivors stated it was Nearer, My God, To Thee, combined with anecdotal evidence from Wallace Hartley’s friend stating that it was one of the hymns he would choose if on a sinking ship, leads the argument in Nearer, My God, To Thee’s favour.
Furthermore, Hartley was a friend of Sir Arthur Sullivan and his version was always played at the graveside of deceased members of the Musicians’ Union. Whilst it is virtually impossible to determine which version of the hymn was played, knowing that the Hartleys were Methodist, his father a choirmaster, and Hartley was previously a chorister in his father’s church, leads me to determine that Nearer, My God, To Thee was the final piece played on the Titanic before it vanished into the Atlantic. The final word for me, however, shall go to the Leeds Mercury, as reported on Monday 22 April 1912 for it stated that it was Nearer, My God, To Thee, Arthur Sullivan’s Proprior Deo setting.
HistorianRuby Comment: The research for this article began after Titanic was shown on TV recently which prompted the questions I asked at the beginning of this post. What I have found utterly compelling are the survivors’ personal accounts of the tragedy and their composure during multiple retellings of the loss of their loved ones and the recounting of one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives.
Having watched Titanic and then A Night to Remember, among countless documentaries and snippets from exhibition curators (this must be where I thank Tim Berners-Lee and YouTube for providing me with a veritable treasure chest to rummage through), I marvel at the authenticity that the film-makers strove to achieve when making their films, e.g. in A Night to Remember, the character of Harold Bride, the junior wireless operator, attacked a man who was trying to steal a life-jacket from his colleague, when the ship was perilously close to sinking. I thought this was a far-fetched scene to over-dramatise an already dramatic situation. However, when listening to Harold’s testimony, given before disembarking the rescue ship RMS Carpathia, he recounted that version of events.
Captain E J Smith had dismissed all crew with he words ‘Every man for himself’, sadly Harold Bride’s colleague, senior wireless operator John ‘Jack’ Phillips was plucked from the Atlantic only to die onboard the lifeboat. Bride stated that the two things that stuck in his mind after the tragedy was the determination, bravery and diligence of Jack Phillips in continuing to send wireless messages until there was no hope even after the Captain had released them, and that as he entered the ocean clinging to the oar lock of the last collapsable lifeboat, which slid into the water upside-down and unusable, he heard the band playing Autumn as the ship sank. ‘The way the band kept playing was a noble thing’, he said, ‘The last I saw of the band as I floated off into the water it was still on deck playing Autumn.’
Harold Bride can be particularly commended for having been rescued from the Atlantic, injured, he spent ten hours in the Carpathia’s hospital, before joining crew in the Carpathia’s wireless room to assist in sending messages to loved ones for those who were lucky enough to be given a place in a lifeboat. There he stayed for the remainder of the trip to New York.
Epilogue: In October 2013 a stunning Titanic artefact was sold for £900,000. Wallace Henry Hartley’s long-lost violin had been sent back to Yorkshire after the tragedy. Its provenance and authenticity was forensically examined for seven years to prove beyond all reasonable doubt its owner was the Titanic’s bandleader. His fiancée had given him the violin as an engagement present and it was engraved ‘For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria’. The brown leather case it was held in was monogramed with the initials WHH.
The violin was not listed amongst Hartley’s possessions when his body was found and it was thought lost, which is what naysayers quote when they refute its origins. However, Maria had requested that the violin be returned to her for sentimental reasons and recorded a draft of the letter in her diary. Later, she also transcribed a telegram that she sent thanking those responsible for its return to her. When she died in 1939 she bequeathed the violin to her sister, who in turn gave it to the Salvation Army, of which she was a member. From the Salvation Army it was given to a music teacher and then to her pupil and it was this pupil’s son who expressed interest in a sale in 2006 after it had spent at least two decades stored in an attic.
If you’d like to read my post Titanic: Before the Disaster click here.
1) Harold Bride (22) – junior wireless operator
2) Frank Prentice (18) – worked in Titanic’s purser’s office
3) Eva Hart (7) – passenger
4) Mrs John Pillsbury Snyder (23) – passenger
5) Mrs Maude Slocombe (30) – stewardess
6) Songe d’Autumne
7) Nearer, My God, To Thee (Bethany Version)
8) Nearer, My God, to Thee (Methodist Version)
9) C.Q.D. BBC Radio Documentary – translated Marconi messages from Titanic and other ships