Ever since the Titanic went down there has been controversy about exactly which musical selections were played by the ship's gallant bandsmen that night. Legend has always had it that - after playing ragtime to bolster the passengers' spirits - the bandsmen played "Nearer My God, To Thee" in the final moments before the great vessel foundered.
Walter Lord's seminal work, "A Night To Remember" (published in 1955) was responsible for a general change of opinion regarding the accuracy of the above "legend." Mr. Lord's book focussed attention on an interview granted by Marconi operator Harold Bride in which Bride stated that - as he swam away from the dying ship - he clearly heard the band playing "Autumn." Titanic researchers generally followed Walter's lead and accepted Bride's statement as the last word on the subject (while at the same time dismissing the possibility that "Nearer My God, To Thee" was ever played by the bandsmen that night.)
This mindset reigned supreme until 1986, at which point Walter Lord published a sequel to his original book called "The Night Lives On." In the latter book Walter discussed the possibility that Harold Bride had been misunderstood in 1912 when he told of having heard "Autumn" being played on board the Titanic. Whereas it had always been assumed that Bride was referring to the Episcopal hymn of that name, Walter suggested that Bride had in actuality been referring to "Songe d'Automne," a waltz by Archibald Joyce that had been popular at the time of the Titanic's sinking. (Indeed, at least one period White Star music booklet does list "Songe d'Automne" among the musical selections that the Line's bandsmen were prepared to play for their passengers.) Once again researchers' attention was diverted from the possibility that there might be any truth to the old legend that "Nearer My God, To Thee" had been played on board the Titanic that night.
Several recent Titanic researchers have gone one step further than Walter Lord by suggesting that, at the very end, Titanic's bandsmen were not playing any music at all; these researchers quote Archibald Gracie's and A. H. Barkworth's observation that the Titanic's bandsmen put their instruments down some little time before the actual sinking - inferring that all music being played on board the ship must necessarily have ceased at that time.
The above inferrence may not be accurate, however. So many other survivors reported hearing music being played just before the Titanic foundered that one wonders if the bandsmen might have abandoned their instruments only temporarily at the time Gracie and Barkworth made their observation. If this was indeed the case, we must of course wonder what might have caused the musicians to interrupt their playing and put their instruments down for a few minutes.
The explanation might be as simple as this - the bandsmen may have set their instruments down in order to go down to their cabins to retrieve their lifebelts. Indeed, observations made by two different Titanic survivors that night lend credence to the likelihood that this was actually the case.
The first observation pertaining to this issue was made by survivor Pierre Marechal, who related it to Secretary Williams of the Amalgamated Musicians' Union. 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, and his observation that the ship's bandsmen were not wearing lifebelts at that time is suggestive. An observation made by Mrs. Gold, however, was made shortly before she took her place in one of the last boats to leave the ship - at which time the situation with the bandsmen had changed. According to Mrs. Gold:
"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 the 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 calculated to instill courage in those people who might derive benefit from it.
Which raises the crucial question: are Titanic researchers really justified in dismissing the "Nearer My God, To Thee" story as mere legend? The present author doesn't think so; indeed, in recent years more than one long-discredited "legend" about the Titanic disaster has been shown to have a basis in fact (e.g. the so-called "legend" of a man who donned woman's clothing in order to get into a lifeboat.) That being the case, perhaps it will be worthwhile for us to re-examine the evidence pertaining to the musical selections played by the Titanic's bandsmen while the vessel was sinking.
It was reported by many survivors that, soon after the collision, the Titanic's band sought to reassure the ship's passengers by playing ragtime and other cheerful music. There is no question about the truth of these reports but, unfortunately, the name of only one of these songs has been preserved for posterity: "Alexander's Ragtime Band." This song was mentioned by at least three survivors: Major Arthur Peuchen, Mrs. Jacques Futrelle and gambler George Brereton. Another lively song, "Great Big Beautiful Doll," was mentioned by Geoffrey Marcus in his book, "The Maiden Voyage," but the original source of Marcus' information is unknown. Steward Edward Wheelton recalled the bandsmen playing "selections from the opera and the latest popular melodies of England and America," but he did not specify the titles of these musical pieces. The band also played at least one waltz selection during the sinking (in later years Edwina Troutt could even hum the melody), but the title of this waltz must remain forever unknown.
It has always seemed unlikely to the present author, however, that the band continued to play lighthearted music right up until the time the ship foundered. Indeed, there would have been little need for ragtime and other cheerful music during the final half-hour before the sinking; most of the boats were gone by then, and the peril was obvious to those people who remained on board the ship. Instead of attempting to lull the passengers' fears with gay tunes at that point, it seems more likely that the bandsmen would have used their music to instill courage in those individuals who needed it.
Some people found that patriotism added steel to their backbones - indeed, Captain Smith is reported to have appealed to his crew to "Be British!" It appears that the bandsmen were thinking along similar lines, for George Harder, from his lifeboat, plainly heard the strains of "The Star Spangled Banner" drifting over the water. Other survivors told the Rev. Henry Burke and Rev. Daniel McCarthy (Carpathia passengers) about hearing this same song as well as other patriotic music. In this same vein, survivor Edwina Troutt wrote to a friend right after the disaster and told about having heard the bandsmen playing "The Land of Hope" (one of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches which the British public adopted as an anthem called "The Land of Hope and Glory.") Titanic survivors on board the Carpathia told fellow survivor John Snyder that they had heard the Titanic's bandsmen playing the old sentimental favorite, "Home, Sweet Home." Last but not least, Richard O'Connor, in his 1956 book "Down to Eternity," mentions that "The Londonderry Aire" was played that night, although - again - O'Connor's source of information is unknown.
Instead of relying solely on patriotism, however, other people looked to their religion as a source of inspiration and courage in the face of what was about to happen. The bandsmen knew this, and their choice of music reflected that knowledge. Mrs. Paul Schabert said that, after playing ragtime for awhile, the band began playing hymns. "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 play "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. And finally, we have wireless operator Harold Bride's account of "Autumn" being played while he struggled in the water.
As was mentioned previously, Walter Lord gave special emphasis to Harold Bride's "Autumn" story, explaining that Bride's account "somehow stands out" from many other conflicting stories. This is true (as far as it goes), but - in recent years - other writers and researchers have become rigid in their thinking about "Autumn" (or "Songe d'Automne"), maintaining that this was undoubtedly the last song played on the Titanic - and that the "Near My God, To Thee" story is only a myth concocted by sensation-hungry newspaper reporters. Indeed, this notion seems to have become "truer" with each repetition until it is now accepted as absolute fact.
It is true that many questionable stories about the Titanic disaster were concocted by reporters in the days immediately following the disaster. It is also clear, however, that many of these so-called "questionable" stories were not invented by reporters at all, but originated instead with actual Titanic survivors who discussed their experiences while still on board the Carpathia. The "Nearer My God, To Thee" story is one of these; Rev. Burke and Rev. McCarthy, both Carpathia passengers, were told about the above hymn by survivors while the rescue ship was still at sea.
It seems clear from our earlier discussion that, besides ragtime and patriotic music, a considerable number of hymns were played by the Titanic's bandsmen during the latter stages of the sinking. Nobody knows the names of all the hymns they played, the order they were played in, or which was the final hymn selected by bandmaster Wallace Hartley that night. Many survivors claimed to have heard "Nearer My God, To Thee" played before the ship foundered; indeed, Edwina Troutt mentioned having heard that hymn played when she wrote the above-mentioned letter to a friend mere days after the sinking. 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."
In light of the information we have just examined, is there any further evidence to suggest that the above hymn might have been played on board the Titanic that night? The present author believes there is.
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."
Lewis Cross, bass viol 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."
I think that Wallace Hartley proved his point the night the Titanic went down. I do not know if "Nearer My God, To Thee" was the FINAL hymn played by the Titanic's band, but I believe the evidence shows that it WAS played that night.