100 years after the sinking of the ill-fated luxury liner, a book examines the healing power of music

By Greg Cahill

It’s the most famous disaster in the annals of nautical history, and one that is emblematic of man’s arrogance at its worst. Yet, the sinking of the RMS Titanic—the luxury liner that had been billed as unsinkable before it plummeted into the icy waters of North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg midway on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City—has produced one of the most inspiring stories ever told of players making the ultimate sacrifice for their music.

In his book The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the Eight Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic (Thomas Nelson, 2011), author Steve Turner notes that, in the weeks immediately following the disaster, the public knew little about the brave eight-piece band that played on the Titanic as it sank. That night, a century ago, 1,517 people lost their lives, due to a severe shortage of lifeboats.

It’s the most famous disaster in the annals of nautical history, and one that is emblematic of man’s arrogance at its worst. Yet, the sinking of the RMS Titanic—the luxury liner that had been billed as unsinkable before it plummeted into the icy waters of North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg midway on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City—has produced one of the most inspiring stories ever told of players making the ultimate sacrifice for their music.

In his book The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the Eight Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic (Thomas Nelson, 2011), author Steve Turner notes that, in the weeks immediately following the disaster, the public knew little about the brave eight-piece band that played on the Titanic as it sank. That night, a century ago, 1,517 people lost their lives, due to a severe shortage of lifeboats.

The ship’s eight hired musicians had never performed together before the voyage. Their leader was violinist Wallace Hartley, 33, who had worked before on the seas for the Cunard ship line before leaving his fiancée to accept the job on the Titanic.

The other seven band members were violinists George Alexandre Krins and John Law Hume, violist and bassist John Frederick Preston Clarke, cellists John Wesley Woodward and Roger Marie Bricoux, and pianists Percy Cornelius Taylor and Theodore Ronald Brailey.

At first news accounts often got their names wrong, but reports of their bravery were immediate and widespread. The band, it was said, had helped calm the nerves of passengers by playing hymns up on the fore deck as the ship slowly slipped bow first into the dark waters. Survivors watched in horror from lifeboats floating in the frigid night.

On May 18, Hartley’s body was brought back to Lancashire to be buried in his family’s vault. He was the only band member to have been recovered by search parties. His funeral drew crowds estimated at between 30,000 to 40,000 people.

Indeed, it was Hartley’s story that especially inspired the band’s legend. One survivor had reported seeing him standing heroically with his fellow musicians on the deck, clinging to the rails of the Grand Staircase and exclaiming, just before that section of the ship was dragged down with the bow, “Gentlemen, I bid you farewell.”

What’s not known for certain is what song the band played during its final moments.

According to Turner, the first known account came from Carlos F. Hurd, a 36-year-old reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch traveling on the Carpathia, one of the ships that helped pick up survivors. Despite instructions from the captain of the Carpathia to leave the Titanic survivors alone, and the efforts of the crew to deny paper to Hurd, he wrote down numerous eyewitness accounts.

One of those reports was published in the Post-Dispatch and the New York World, before being syndicated by the Associated Press. It read: “As the screams in the water multiplied, another sound was heard, strong and clear at first, then fainter in the distance. It was the melody of the hymn ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee,’ played by the string orchestra in the dining saloon. Some of those on the water started to sing the words, but grew silent as they realized that for the men who played, the music was a sacrament soon to be consummated by death. The serene strains of the hymn and the frantic cries of the dying blended in a symphony of sorrow.”

Some witnesses reported that, in fact, the last song was “Autumn,” which has a similar melody to the more widely reported hymn. Others, clinging to lifeboats far from the sinking ship, couldn’t hear the band at all, but only the sound of fellow survivors singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” in nearby lifeboats.

Without a doubt, a century later, the inspiring story of the band that played on in the face of death has won the hearts of countless others.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter “A Natural Fruit of the Evil of the Age,” from Turner’s book, that contemplates the role of faith and music during the disaster.

The following is excerpted from The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the Eight Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic (Thomas Nelson, 2011), by Steve Turner.

Mrs. Ada Clarke, one of the first to tell the story of “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” left her husband behind because he urged her to get into a lifeboat even though she wanted to remain with him. She saw him standing on the deck as the ship sank. Ida Straus, wife of the multimillionaire philanthropist Isidor Straus, elected to stay by her husband and they both calmly faced death together, seated and holding hands. W.T. Stead apparently remained in his chair as though the next life was merely a last-minute change of destination.

It was the hundreds of similar stories of stoicism, charity, and self-sacrifice that heartened people, encouraging them to think that they weren’t such a bad lot after all. Despite never having to display their best selves in the heat of war, a randomly selected cross section had managed to face life’s most intense moment and emerge from it with glory. “We are rearing a self-reliant race—a race of men and women well equipped for the battle of life,” roared an editorial in the South London Observer on April 24.

“The heroism on the ill-fated Titanic shows conclusively that we have not degenerated since the days of Nelson. It was the same old British puck which in the past often carried the Union Jack to victory.”

Henry Van Dyke, professor of English literature at Princeton, believed that the very procedure of putting women and children first was an instinctive application of a Christian principle. If earning power, physical strength, or social standing had prevailed, it would have been men first, women second, and children last of all. He asked where this rule originated.

“It comes from God, through the faith of Jesus of Nazareth,” he argued in the New York Times. “It is the ideal of self-sacrifice. It is the rule that ‘the strong ought to bear the infirmities of those that are weak.’ It is the divine revelation which is summed up in the words: Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends. It needs a tragic catastrophe like the wreck of the Titanic to bring out the absolute contradiction between this ideal and all the counsels of materialism and selfish expediency.”

Even those who didn’t see specifically Christian values emerge were at least pleased that Western civilization’s codes of behavior had survived amid the chaos. Van Dyke continued:

There was no disorder, no rioting, the rule of the sea prevailed over the first law of nature. With the band playing and the lights of the sinking ship still burning, the doomed company awaited the end. They died like heroes, they died like men. It is a tragic and dreadful story, but it tells us how civilization conquers the primal, savage instincts and brings into being and dominance the higher and nobler qualities of man’s nature. There is not in history a more splendid and inspiring example of self-control, of sacrifice, of courage and of manliness.

This is why the band emerged as such heroes. Not only had they behaved dutifully and without apparent concern for their own safety, but they also offered the hope that not all of the younger male generation were venial, lazy, proud, irreligious, inconsiderate, self-indulgent, weak-willed and timorous.

The example of the band suggested that the doom mongers may have got it wrong because, unlike soldiers, they hadn’t trained to face danger and had come straight to the deck from the heart of the early-20th-century splendor and luxury.

If eight random men could display such strength of character in unison on the spur of the moment, the chances were that another eight men randomly selected would react in the same way.

There was an element of truth to this, but it overlooked the vital role played by Wallace Hartley as bandmaster. Although it’s not known whether the band played voluntarily or under orders, the men were under Hartley’s command and his influence set the tone. He left behind no written confession of faith, but all the indications are that the faith of his childhood had continued into adulthood.

His moral character and his personal assurance that death was not the end must have stirred his bandsmen, all of whom had at least grown up in the church. The choice of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was almost certainly due to Hartley’s familiarity with the hymn and love for its message, something he had already confirmed to friends. Would the band have behaved in the same way under a dissolute and immoral leader or would someone not raised on the music of the church have chosen a hymn to restore calm amidst tragedy?

In the absence of detailed information on each bandsman’s life, it’s hard to pass judgment on the development of their moral character. In speaking of them as heroic, it’s tempting to think that in childhood each of them was unafraid of pain and displayed unique signs of self-control and willingness to sacrifice, but the chances are that some were quite naturally brave and others just as naturally fearful. As has been wryly observed: “A hero is just a coward who got cornered.”

Yet together as a band under Hartley’s leadership, they transcended their personal limitations. The music itself played a major role in boosting their nerve. It’s long been known that music can alter moods. In the 17th century, the Restoration playwright William Congreve wrote the lines: “Music has charm to soothe the savage breast. To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”

If the quote attributed to Wallace Hartley is anything to go by, he would have concurred with this sentiment: “I have always felt that, when men are called to face death suddenly, music is far more effective in cheering them on than all the firearms in creation.”

George Orrell, bandmaster on the Carpathia in 1912, told Herman Finck, musical director of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and author of “In the Shadows,” which the band allegedly played on deck, that the musicians on any ship at the time were accustomed to the idea that they would be asked to play at any time that passengers were distressed.

“The ship’s band in any emergency is expected to play to calm the passengers,” he said.

After the Titanic struck the iceberg the band began to play bright music, dance music, comic songs—anything that would prevent the passengers from becoming panic-stricken. The ship was so badly holed that it was soon obvious that disaster was ahead. Then various awe-stricken passengers began to think of the death that faced them and asked the bandmaster to play hymns. The one which appealed to all was, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Orrell got his information not from news reports, but directly from the rescued passengers he spoke to on the Carpathia.

The effect of the music on passengers awaiting rescue appears to have been one of reassurance. When everything else on the Titanic was being turned upside down, the music remained the same. In the midst of mind-jarring abnormality, it was the one thing that retained its familiarity. For those out on the water it provided a bizarre soundtrack to a sight that so many would only be able to describe as “like watching a moving picture.”

It also appears to have inspired singing in the lifeboats. Passengers spoke of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” being sung by the survivors as they drifted on the water, but it’s not clear whether they were singing along to the band or whether what the band had played had stayed with them.

It was a perfect media package—ordinariness to connect them with the common reader, bravery to act as an inspiration, and a piece of music that could become a signature tune for the whole event. Whenever there was a funeral, a memorial service, or a fund-raising event, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” would be played and the story of the band’s final stand automatically brought to mind.

During the next two years, the immensity of the Titanic tragedy would be pored over in many books, magazines, and newspaper specials, but in the summer of 1914 came the start of the First World War and deaths on a previously unimaginable scale. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, more than 20,000 British troop were killed—the equivalent of 13 Titanic disasters.

By the end of the conflict, almost six million soldiers fighting against Germany had lost their lives.

The war helped push the Titanic to the back of people’s minds as words such as tragedy and disaster took on new and deeper meanings.


The Violin That Survived the ‘Titanic’

When a search party from the cable-repair ship CS Mackay-Bennett pulled Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley’s lifeless body from the Atlantic Ocean, they found a violin case strapped to his chest. Reportedly, the violin—mentioned in a list of personal effects that accompanied the body back home—disappeared before reaching England.

Yet, enticingly, reports that the violin had been returned to Hartley’s fiancé, Maria Robinson, persist. That’s due in part to this entry in Robinson’s diary (a draft of a letter thanking officials in Nova Scotia for helping to return Hartley’s body): “I would be most grateful if you could convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have made possible the return of my late fiancé’s violin. May I also take this opportunity to express my appreciation to you personally for your gracious intervention on my behalf.”

The famous violin—which author Steve Turner calls “a symbol of self-sacrifice and unflappable dignity”—was in a brown leather case with the initials W.H.H. stamped on it. The violin bore the inscription, “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.”

Titanic-violin_2509384b_xlargeAs the subject of much speculation and public interest, the violin—and its provenance—were subjected to seven years of research and vetting by the auction house before the October 19 sale.

The violin itself appears to be a workshop instrument, perhaps from the Caussin or Schönbach shops, according to a dealer Martin Swan, and certainly of the type that any reasonable musician would take on a cruise-ship gig. As such, its value has everything to do with the association of Hartley and the Titanic and the market felt that $1.7 million was its real value.

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