107 #75: The band on Titanic played Nearer My God To Thee as the ship sank

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Titanic band

TRUE, possibly. The band began by playing light, cheerful music, including waltzes, ragtime tunes, and the popular comic songs of the day from the London music halls, in order to reassure Titanic’s passengers after the collision.

Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band was very popular at the time, and Fourth Officer Boxhall recalled that this was the first tune the band played after the collision, which he noticed as he came through the First Class lounge on the way back from his inspection tour of the ship. Major Arthur Peuchen, Mrs. Lily Futrelle and gambler George Brereton all confirmed that the band played this tune that night. Another tune that was remembered was In the Shadows, which had been a big London hit in 1911. Evidence of the last tune played comes from assistant Marconi operator, Harold Bride, who was quoted as follows in the New York press on 19th April, 1912:

‘From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a ragtime tune, I don’t know what. Then there was Autumn. Phillips ran aft, and that was the last I ever saw of him…’

Bride was probably referring to the popular waltz Songe d’Automne, composed by Archibald Joyce, which was a major hit in London in 1912.

Fred Vallance, band leader of the Cunard liner Laconia wrote to Walter Lord in 1957, explaining that he was once playing Songe d’Automne, and a ship’s steward (apparently from the Titanic) came up and admonished him that it was ‘unlucky’. This tends to add weight to the band playing only cheerful songs, and First Class Titanic survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie observed:

‘If Nearer, My God, to Thee was one of the selections, I assuredly would have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death, and more likely to create a panic that our special efforts were directed towards avoiding…’

In addition, this hymn was set to the tune of Bethany in the US, but J. B. Dykes Horbury in the UK (and as band leader Wallace Hartley had a strong Methodist background, he would have grown up with it set to Sullivan’s Proprior Deo) and these facts suggest that it may therefore have been unlikely that both American and British passengers recognised the hymn, as they both claim to have done.

Archibald Grace, in a talk he gave to the Washington University Club in November 1912, shortly before he died as a result of exposure he suffered the night the Titanic sank, said that the band stopped playing about half an hour before the ship sank and added that he himself saw the musicians lay down their instruments. This was confirmed by another First Class passenger, A. H. Barkworth, who said:

‘I do not wish to detract from the bravery of anybody, but I might mention that when I first came on deck the band was playing a waltz. The next time I passed where the band had been stationed, the members had thrown down their instruments, and were not to be seen.’

However, it is possible that the band only laid down their instruments while they went to their quarters to get their lifebelts. Survivor Pierre Marechal told Secretary Williams of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union that the musicians were not wearing lifebelts and secretary Williams later wrote:

‘Marechal declared that the musicians received an order to play all the time without stopping, so as to avoid a panic. They were placed on the deck, that is to say, between the decks [on A deck]. Marechal specially noticed that none of them had lifebelts, he being convinced that in giving them these orders their lives were to be sacrificed to avoid disorder on board.’

Pierre Marechal took a seat in the very first lifeboat to leave the Titanic, but by the time Titanic survivor Mrs Gold—who left in a later lifeboat—observed the band, they clearly were wearing lifebelts:

‘When we left the ship men were sitting on A deck, smoking cigarettes and tapping time with their feet to the music of the band. These passengers and the bandsmen, too, had their lifebelts beside them, and I was specially struck by a glimpse of a violinist playing steadily with a great lifebelt in front of him. The music was ragtime just then.’

It seems quite possible, then, that Titanic’s musicians returned to A deck with their lifebelts and then continued playing their music where they had left off. In which case the possibility also remains that, in the final half-hour before the vessel sank, the bandsmen may have chosen to forego their repertoire of lively music and concentrate instead on playing inspiring selections, including hymns, in order to instil courage in those who remained on the Titanic after all the lifeboats had departed.

Indeed, Mrs. Paul Schabert said that, after playing ragtime for a while, the band began playing hymns, and that When we Meet Beyond was one of the first hymns they chose, followed by others; Dr. Washington Dodge, from his lifeboat, reported hearing the band playing Lead, Kindly Light; a group of Titanic crewmen heard the band play Abide With Me and Eternal Father, Strong To Save as well as other hymns. Marie Jerwan mentions that the band played Nearer, My God, To Thee in the following extract from a letter she wrote in May of 1912:

‘Little by little the lights disappeared one after another, until we could see only a black mass. The bow was already submerged. We still heard the musicians of the ship playing the beautiful hymn: Nearer My God to Thee, to which we joined in with all our heart. What heroism to stay that way at their post to give courage to those who were going to die, in playing this song, so beautiful and so solemn.’

And finally, we have wireless operator Harold Bride’s account of Autumn, which could also have been the hymn tune Autumn. Although newspaper reports and survivor accounts can be inaccurate, Rev. Burke and Rev. McCarthy, both Carpathia passengers, were told about the hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee by survivors while the rescue ship was still at sea; and both Kate Buss and Edwina Troutt mentioned having heard that hymn played when they wrote to friends whilst still on board the Carpathia. Steward Edward Wheelton agreed with Miss Troutt, telling a reporter that, before the final plunge, the bandsmen changed the cheerful character of their musical program and played the hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee.

Another steward, Jacob Gibbons, was adamant that this was indeed the case; according to Gibbons:

‘The cries of those on board were terrible, and I doubt whether the memory of them will ever leave me during my lifetime. It has been denied by many that the band was playing, but it was doing so and the strains of Nearer, My God, to Thee came clearly over the water with a solemnity so awful that words cannot express it.’

Moreover, the objection that this hymn would have been unrecognisable to both American and British passengers, due to its different settings on each side of the Atlantic is dealt with when one recalls that Nearer, My God, To Thee was in fact on bandmaster Wallace Hartley’s White Star Line play list. It would therefore have been played during religious services on board and both British and American passengers would by 15th April have associated the same tune with Nearer, My God, To Thee.

Indeed, Elwane Moody, a well-known Leeds musician, was a close friend of Wallace Hartley and had just completed twenty-two Atlantic crossings with him on the Mauretania.

(In fact, Hartley had asked Moody to accompany him on the Titanic, but Moody had declined.) Not long before the Titanic’s maiden voyage, Moody asked Hartley, ‘What would you do if you were ever on a ship that was sinking?’ Hartley looked thoughtful for a moment and replied: ‘I don’t think I could do better than play O God, Our Help In Ages Past or Nearer, My God, To Thee.’ Later, after the disaster, Moody said, ‘When I read the statement in the papers that he had gone to his death leading the band in Nearer, My God, To Thee, I believed it. If it had been some other hymn I might not have done so, but as it is I can quite believe it. It is just what he would do.’

And Lewis Cross, double bass player on the Celtic, was another friend of Wallace Hartley who once spoke with him about the possibility of a shipwreck. Hartley smiled and said, ‘Well, I don’t suppose it will ever happen, but you know music is a bigger weapon than a gun in a big emergency, and I think that a band could do more to calm passengers than all the officers.’

We do not know if Nearer, My God, To Thee was the final hymn played by the Titanic’s band, but there is plenty of survivor evidence that hymns—and this hymn in particular— were played that night.

Regardless of what was actually the final tune played that night, and whether it was ragtime or hymns, the music of Titanic’s band evidently made a deep impression on many survivors, both during the disaster and afterwards. The Countess of Rothes, who was rescued in lifeboat No. 8, told Walter Lord how, when dining out with friends about a year after the sinking, she suddenly ‘experienced the feeling of cold and intense horror she always associated with the Titanic’. A moment later, she realised that it was because the orchestra was playing selections from the Tales of Hoffman, which had been played by the Titanic’s band after dinner on Sunday evening, 14th April, 1912.

If you’d like to read the full book of101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t!, or any of my other books on Titanic, please visit my Author Page on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tim-maltin/e/B005LNHYEQ/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

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