The musicians on the RMS Titanic are considered heroes. They played under the worst circumstances and continued until the last possible moments.
All of the band members on board were considered Second Class Passengers. They were employed by Messrs C. W. & F. N. Black of Liverpool and not on the White Star Line payroll. The White Star Line had their own songbook and the musicians were expected to know all of these tunes by memory.
In total there were eight musicians on board. There were two groups that performed at different times and places. A quintet played at teatime, for after dinner parties and for Sunday Services. The trio consisted of a violin, cello and piano that played in the reception room outside the A la Carte Restaurant and the Café Parisian. When they gathered together as the Titanic began to sink, it was probably the first time they’d all played together. Dancing was not encouraged in this era, so the music served as a background to good conversation or a game of cards.
Wallace Hartley was the leader of the Titanic band. He’d been on the Cunard line, most notably Lusitania and Mauretania, which Olympic and Titanic were built to rival. The opportunity to play on Titanic with the riches and most distinguished passengers was too great of a lure for him, as it would be for almost any musician of the day.
As the first lifeboats loaded, these men gathered in the 1st Class Lounge where 1st class passengers were assembling to play. As the seriousness of the situation became apparent the band moved with passengers to the Boat Deck near the Grand Staircase.
We don’t know exactly what was played, but we do know the music was cheerful and gay. The selections were mostly ragtime selections and waltzes that gave the impression to the passengers on deck that all was under control; there was no need to panic. Many of the survivors expressed their gratitude to the Titanic band for helping to maintain an air of decorum during the scramble for the lifeboats. Others have criticized the band for playing. Some felt that having the band on deck gave people a false impression that things weren’t that bad and it caused many to take the situation lightly, thus preventing more from entering the life boats. This argument is left to conjecture, but what is known is that the band’s music did help to soothe the passengers and most likely prevented panic as the last of the boats were leaving.
At 2:00 A.M. the last boat, Collapsible D, left the ship. It was now 2:05 A.M. more than 1,500 people were still aboard. The Titanic sank lower and lower at the bow, and the stern began to rise out of the water. There was little time now. The band continued to play. The deck became so steep that bandmaster Hartley released the musicians from duty. Alone, he began the first notes of a simple hymn. One by one the bandsmen, choosing not to leave joined in. It was the last song the band would play and the last song survivors heard before the boat broke into two pieces. Minutes later the entire band was washed away by a sudden wave as the Titanic made its final plunge.
We know from a report to the Trade Union of Musicians of Britain that none of these men were wearing life jackets. One can only imagine how difficult it was to continue to play as the ship began to tilt and slowly moved upright. These men knew that they were in the last minutes to their lives. The Trade Union also reported that the musicians were ordered to play in order to avoid panic. Almost all of the survivor reports talk about how calm everyone was, and this due to the band playing.
On May 18, 1912, the body of bandmaster Wallace Hartley was laid to rest in what some called “pageantry beyond belief.” 30,000 mourners packed the streets of Colne, Hartley’s birthplace in the hills of Lancashire, England. Seven bands played as his rosewood casket was carried throughout the streets. Musicians, Aldermen, police, clergy, miners and the curious were all there to pay their respects to this Titanic hero. The world came to thank Hartley for his courage and for the courage of the other band members for their willingness to stay on deck and play, even while the Titanic was taking her last dive. Their courage and bravery was not in vain. The world that day said thank you.
One second class passenger said: “Many brave things were done that night, but none were more brave than those done by men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea. The music they played served alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recalled on the scrolls of undying fame.”
A newspaper at the time reported “the part played by the orchestra on board the Titanic in her last dreadful moments will rank among the noblest in the annals of heroism at sea.” Neither White Star Line nor the C.W. & F.N. Black agency had any insurance on the musicians. Each company blamed the other. This sad occurrence caused much heartache and hardship for the families of these musicians.
Wallace Hartley’s body was only one of three of the musicians found and identified. His instrument was still strapped to his body. When a colleague, Lewis Cross, asked Harley about a shipwreck while serving on the Celtic. 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.” Elwane Moody reported that when asked about a sinking, Hartley replied, “I don’t think I could do better than play “O God, Our Help In Ages Past” or “Nearer My God, To Thee.”
As we all know, it’s believed the last song the band played before the Titanic went under was “Nearer My God, To Thee.“
Next week check out Singingthesonginmyheart for more on the musicians and songs of the Titanic.