You may or may not keep the date in mind — I certainly don’t — but it was in the very early hours of 15 April 1912 that all 46,000 tons of the R.M.S. Titanic vanished into the North Atlantic, the ship having struck an iceberg just 2 hours and 40 minutes earlier. This disaster — which ended the lives of more than 2/3 of the approximately 2,200 people aboard (the precise number of passengers has never been ascertained) — is something about which I have no specialist knowledge whatsoever. But there is one aspect to it which is not only deeply moving but is also so consistently misunderstood and mishandled that, over the years, I have become just a little bit annoyed about it.

Exactly what this issue is, I will reveal in a moment. Before I do, however, let me present a short clip in which the film director James Cameron — who made the massively expensive (and even more profitable) 1997 movie — introduces a carefully modelled computer animation that attempts to show precisely how the ship sank. I don’t think it does any harm to start off with a little clarity about the purely mechanical, as opposed to the human, side of the tragedy…

As for the matter that leads me to carry round yet another unquenchable spark of annoyance, it concerns one of the most unforgettable stories from that terrible night. I am tempted to say that the story ‘is one that is universally known’ — but I’m not going to: since I know for a happy fact that these postings are not only read in parts of the world that are still outside the western corporatocracy, but are also seen by young people (some of whom write to me now and then), it’s entirely possible that this story hasn’t reached everyone who now sees these words. So let me straight away begin to tell the tale by including the relevant extract from Cameron’s own film…

[Original clip deleted by YouTube; inadequate replacement substituted.]

Yes: the story that I am referring to is that concerning the ship’s musicians who — as reported by various of the 706 survivors — continued to play as the ship sank. I don’t think anyone who has ever heard this tale will have forgotten it: I would be prepared to bet that literally never, in the 105 years that have now elapsed, has anyone asked the question ‘Can you remember what the musicians on the Titanic apparently did as the ship went down?‘ and received an answer that went ‘Well, erm, you know, someone did tell me this once; but I’ve forgotten it. Wasn’t it something to do with the ship’s badger? Could you give me a clue…?

In view of which it is all the more unforgivable that there are so many ways in which filmed depictions of this tragic vignette are always botched.

First, count the musicians we see at that point in Cameron’s film: two violinists, a cellist and a bass player. (Since we saw five string players performing on deck a little earlier on, one of the group seems to have gone AWOL.) In reality, though, the Titanic had eight musicians, who belonged to two separate ensembles: one a quintet, the other a trio. You may say this is a small point — and I can’t disagree — but, all the same, Cameron’s film was widely praised for the extent to which it spent massive amounts of its $200,000,000 budget on getting relatively small details precisely correct. Yet, where the famous final gesture of the musicians was concerned, the film cut the actual complement by half — leaving me, at least, to wonder what the other four are doing…

Of course, Cameron’s film is by no means the only one to have been made about the Titanic — and, as far as I know, there hasn’t ever been a movie about the sinking that neglects to refer in some way either to those musicians or to the hymn they were supposed to have played. Here’s a clip from an earlier film…

Now, that looked like six players — four strings (one of them doubling on vocals) and two woodwinds. Once again, though, this departs significantly from factuality. Our eight real musicians included no woodwind players at all: the quintet was apparently all strings (2 violins, 2 cellos, 1 bass), and the trio seems to have been a standard ‘piano trio’ (violin, cello, piano). [I should add that, for purely musical reasons, the alleged composition of that quintet sets off alarm bells in my mind — as does, for different reasons, the apparently contradictory description ‘2 violins, bass viola, cello, piano’; but we’ll have to discuss that on some other occasion.]

Here’s another version of the scene, from a still older film…

[Original clip deleted by YouTube; inadequate replacement substituted.]

So, in this version … well, you heard, didn’t you? And indeed saw: a couple of people had brought their saxophones on board with them, to make sure that any little brass ensemble that needed to play wouldn’t be under-strength… And as for how the music itself was handled in that film: there might actually be an acceptable reason why the doomed unfortunates on the ship are condemned to sing and die in F sharp major, while the survivors in the lifeboats are enharmonically a whole tone higher in A flat major; but if there is, I can’t think of it.

And, just for completeness’s sake, here a segment of the oldest ‘Titanic’ film I’ve ever seen: a Nazi propaganda movie from 1943 (I’ll spare you the revolting details) in which the ship is seen to be carrying enough musicians to staff not only a full-scale ‘Johann Strauss’ orchestra but also an entire (German) military band full of horns and tubas. (The ‘hymn tune’ bit is right at the end of this clip…)


By now, I think it’s obvious that we’re never going to get better than a half-way accurate representation of our ship’s musicians: every film about this disaster will take the trouble to include a plausible Benjamin Guggenheim; a recognisable Margaret ‘Maggie’ (posthumously ‘Molly’) Brown; a nicely hateable J. Bruce Ismay, and so on. But when it comes to a proper representation of the musicians — Mr Brailey, Monsieur Bricoux, Mr Clarke, your Bandmaster Mr Hartley, Mr Hume, Monsieur Krins, Mr Taylor and Mr Woodward — you can forget it, and their two ensembles, too.

Not that this is anywhere close to being the only problematic feature of filmed depictions of how ‘the band(s) played on’. For one thing, notice that while every director happily moves his musicians up onto the deck as the disaster unfolds, no-one pays any attention at all to the freezing temperature that met them once they were outside for the final stages of the tragedy. A fairly settled ‘timeline’ exists which suggests that it was at around 12.15 am (about 35 minutes after the collision) that the musicians of both ensembles gathered together — for the first time ever! — in the luxury of the First Class Lounge and played comfortingly jolly music for almost an hour. One doesn’t imagine that they would have felt entitled to leave that space while the passengers were happy to stay; but by 1.10am (after 90 minutes), it seems, they had moved up to Boat Deck level inside the First Class Entrance to the Forward Grand Staircase. After playing there for half an hour or so they ran down to their various cabins to fetch their lifebelts; and it was apparently after doing this that they reassembled (around 1.50am; i.e. after 130 minutes) just outside the port side First Class Entrance, near to the base of the second funnel and the Gymnasium.

But for how long could they have managed to keep playing once they were outside? I surely cannot be the only person to have observed that climatic conditions so hostile that people in the water either suffered immediate cardiac arrest or died within minutes from hypothermia will not create an on-deck environment in which digital flexibility and sensation can be maintained forever. Several reports say that the band continued playing until the slope of the deck became too steep for them to stand; several others claim that the musicians had put down their instruments and disappeared at least 30 minutes before the vessel sank. (Might that not just have been the point when they went off to get their life-jackets, though?) It’s a question I’ve never seen asked; but when would it have been that the players simply found they could no longer use their fingers properly? I myself remember having a tough enough time simply getting my hands to change a car’s rear wheel in freezing weather — and I wasn’t doing it at an ever-increasing angle to the horizontal while both maintaining a consistent tempo and watching the steady approach of salt water at −2°C

Secondly, what would the the trio’s pianist have done outside? Whatever he did, he won’t have been playing a piano. For I can absolutely guarantee that none of the pianos on board the Titanic (I have heard that there were six in all) will have been moveable: any piano that goes to sea needs to be bolted very securely to something very solid — or else, at some point, it will pulverise everything in the room before smashing its way out through the wall. It does seem, however, that all eight musicians stayed together: one survivor claimed to have seen three of them washed off the boat deck near the second funnel while the other five clung to the railing and went down with the forward section. (Mr Hartley’s final words: Gentlemen, I bid you farewell!“)

Which, of course, brings us to the performance of ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ that some survivors reported hearing (and others vehemently denied).

Myself, I’ve never felt entirely confident that this aspect of the story is altogether free of the kind of myth-making that such a horrendous set of events will inevitably catalyse. But, if we are to accept that ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ was indeed played on deck (and maybe even sung: the pianist[s] would presumably have wanted to do something…), the question arises as to which of the hymn’s various different tunes they used. The four film versions above already disagree over this: three of them present one tune (‘Bethany‘, 1856, by the American Dr Lowell Mason), and one of them presents another (‘Horbury‘, 1861, by the English Rev. John Bacchus Dykes). To me, it is just one more of the annoying features of this whole topic that the tune that our lead violinist Wallace Hartley was, personally, most likely to have favoured might have been a different one entirely: as a Methodist from a prominent Methodist family, he could well have preferred the Methodist hymn tune ‘Propior Deo‘ that was written for those same words by his friend Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1872 (and was in fact the tune habitually played at Amalgamated Musicians’ Union funerals…).

All in all, then, it wouldn’t be that hard for a ‘Titanic’ film-maker to do very much better in regard to the ship’s legendary musicians than anyone has done so far. And it’s all such obvious advice, when it comes down to it. Don’t make it look like there were four, or five, or six, who all died, when there were eight, who all died. Don’t cast your band using mature actors who’ll not see 40 again: none of the actual players was older than 33, and the four youngest were just 20, 21, 23 and 24. Don’t have them play instruments that they didn’t: it’s simply not fair. If you are going to show a double bass being played, let us actually hear the sound it makes. Don’t ignore the pianist(s) or those top-of-the-range Steinway pianos — which will have been a major part of the musical experience for everyone on board. Remember that the two musical groups — having different roles within the life of the ship — had different repertoires, and had never played together before that final night. Let’s have at least one or two of the musicians named and properly characterised: they were people, too, you know. And since we know all about where they came from, it wouldn’t hurt if you tried to give them their appropriate regional accents. And don’t forget the extreme difference between the interior and exterior playing situations: seeing some, most or all of the players not merely ‘on deck’ but encumbered by life-jackets and struggling with the cold won’t only be truthful, but will also help you intensify the drama. And why not allow Hartley, at least, to be playing the tune he is likely to have preferred, rather than the one you and/or your target (American) audience do? And, yes, I know there’ll be a lot going on as everyone dies; but can’t we see an instrument in the water, sinking along with everything else…?

Which reminds me. The bodies of Hartley, Hume and Clarke were actually among the 300 or so that were recovered, kept afloat by their primitive cork-and-linen life-jackets. Tagged as corpses 224, 193 and 202 respectively, they were found some 40 miles away from the disaster site and relatively close together — a fact which might support the idea that they entered the water at about the same place at about the same time. If you’ll allow that a contemporary newspaper account can be right and a recovery team’s paperwork can be wrong (or, at least, incomplete), we may accept the claim that Hartley’s body — which had been in the icy current for 10 days — was strapped to a bag with his violin in it. Note that I say ‘bag’ — in fact a leather valise of some kind — rather than ‘violin case’. Because a violin case it certainly is not: while I would never assume that a violin case of the early 1900s looked a lot like any of the kinds that are in use today, you can see pretty clearly from the photo that this container is not only too soft, but also too small to be any such thing: even if the instrument itself could just about fit in diagonally, the bow wouldn’t; and, indeed, Hartley’s bow was not found. (The water-damaged violin was authenticated as Hartley’s prior to its auction in 2013; UK press story here.)


You’ll realise, I’m sure, why I mention this. Every modern person, aware of the way legends are created out of psychological need, and how word-of-mouth reports that become newspaper write-ups are not to be trusted, will — to some extent, at least! — have wondered whether the story of those dedicated musicians playing until the last possible moment and finishing with a hymn is an expedient fiction, a myth, a lie, like all those others…

But consider what we learn from this violin (if one accepts the authentication and the accompanying story, which some people don’t). Wherever Mr Hartley was when he finished playing for what was to be the very last time, his proper violin case, clearly, was no longer within reach: if it had been, he’d have put his instrument and its expensive bow in it. Very plainly, therefore, as things stood, all he could do was cram his precious instrument into a bag that he could tie himself to, and hope (in vain) for the best. That doesn’t ‘rule anything in’ — but it does rule a few things out

It’s a game fit for only the most boring parties, I know; but just ponder, for a moment, that thing people do where they ask each other who it would be that they would choose to resurrect from history so they could talk to them over dinner…

Who are you going to choose…? Shakespeare? (You wouldn’t understand his accent.) Beethoven? (‘Pardon?’) Wagner (You would have to reprove him — and he wouldn’t like it.) Schoenberg (Well, actually: now you’re talking…)

Having now thought about this topic over a few hours, I think I’d choose to meet the eight musicians who played on the Titanic exactly 105 years ago


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One thought on “Titanic…

  1. Great article Mark thanks.
    I Just wondering if you knew there is another very interesting side to the “Titanic Story”
    If you have 50 minutes spare, this is a great documentary to start with.
    Would really like to hear your opinion.



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