Sunday, April 15, 2012

Courage and Consolation: The Heroism of the Titanic’s Band

Bandmaster Wallace Hartley
On May 18, 1912, a funeral service was held in the small town of Colne, in Lancashire, England. It drew over thirty thousand people. It was the service for Wallace Hartley, violinist and Bandmaster of the Titanic. The hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee” was played during the funeral. Legend tells us that it was the last piece of music the Titanic band played as the ship went down.

Wallace Hartley was one of eight musicians who chose to stay on board until the very end, playing music to ease the anxiety of the passengers. For me, Hartley and his fellow players performed an inspired act of bravery. While consoling the survivors, their music was the last heard by those who perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. As Canadian historian Adrian Shuman has said “music makes sense of the tragedy” (from the CBC-Radio documentary, Hartley’s Violin). It offered the survivors an important link to the humanity of the story and a contemporary understanding of the power of music to reach out and connect us. Music has always played an important role in communicating and honouring the dead by expressing a deeper and more spiritual form of communion.

White Star Lines was the company that owned and operated the RMS Titanic. It was a business interested in making the sea-going experience as bold as the new century. The Titanic was a ship that also represented the grandeur of the Edwardian era. It was built to provide the utmost in luxury for its First Class passengers while providing affordable transportation to the United States for those seeking a new life abroad. The Titanic was a state-of-the-art vessel bigger and better than what came before it on the open seas. So, to be hired as a musician on board was as prestigious as playing for royalty.

In 1912, working musicians had a lot to be grateful for if they were hired to play on a cruise ship. The work was steady and the tips were an important part of their annual earnings. The interesting thing about Wallace Hartley, and the seven musicians who joined him on the Titanic, was that they hired on the cheap. White Star contacted the agency of Charles and Frederick Black who controlled all of the players for ocean liners in Liverpool. Their roster of players was quite extensive, so when White Star put in their request, the Blacks easily obliged, but at a fee of nearly half the musician’s wages.

Photographs of the Titanic's musicians
White Star wanted a quintet for the restaurant for First Class passengers, and a trio for the Café Parisien. The band was expected to play during lunch and dinner, to provide a robust ambience to the vessel, and at every formal meal, including teatime. The band was also expected to play at church services and special occasions, such as a birthday. After dinner, they often gave a formal concert featuring selections from the 341-tune songbook provided by White Star. The book could be accessed by the passengers, who could call out the number of a song they wished to hear. The rest of the time the band rehearsed, so it was probably a full schedule for the musicians.

The band’s repertoire was quite varied for 1912. They played the music of Scott Joplin, Antonin Dvorak, Johann Strauss, et al, with a few hymns and perhaps some new American songs from Tin Pan Alley. “Nearer My God to Thee” was a particular favourite of Wallace Hartley, and all reports from the survivors strongly suggest that this hymn was the last piece they played before the band members jumped into the water after all the lifeboats had left. All of the musicians died, quite possibly of hypothermia. We’ll never really know.

What we do know is that Wallace Hartley asked his fellow players to perform an unusual act of bravery. When the Titanic hit an iceberg at 11:40 pm, on the night of April 14th, the damage was so severe that Captain Smith and the designer, Thomas Andrews, knew it would sink in less than 3 hours. The order was given to launch the lifeboats and save as many passengers and crew as possible. Hartley and his fellow musicians, who were not members of the crew but contract employees, took out their instruments and played on the ship’s deck. As history and a United States Senate investigation revealed, there were too few lifeboats and 1,517 people perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

Marking the centenary of the disaster has been a mix of news stories, auctions and memorials. For me, the significance of eight musicians who felt the need to console the survivors, and comfort those who were about to die is, sadly, under recognized. It’s a story that is as important in the history of the Titanic disaster as any other; no more, no less because it speaks to the power of music during a crisis. Steve Turner, author of the book, The Band That Played On (Thomas Nelson 2011), says “If it hadn’t been for the Titanic we probably wouldn’t have remembered any of them. But because of the Titanic we remember all of them.”

Here are the names of the eight musicians who played on the Titanic: Wallace Hartley, Band Master, violin; Roger Bricoux, cello; William “Theo” Bailey, piano; John Wesley Woodward, cello; John “Jock” Hume, violin; Georges Krins, violin; Percy Taylor, piano; and Fred Clarke, bass violin.

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. His documentary Hartley’s Violin was broadcast on CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition on April 1st, 2012. You can go to the CBC-Radio website, under The Sunday Edition, and listen to the archived version of the documentary.

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