On April 14, 1912, the Titanic hit the iceberg at 11:40 that night. The eight band members, who were off duty by that time in their second class cabin on E Deck, were called on by their bandleader, Wallace Hartley, to assemble on the deck and play music to help calm the situation. The ship was unsinkable, as everyone knew, and so seeing the band playing without concern would show people that everything was under control.
The band, also called the orchestra, was an "all star team"–assembled from the best of the musicians who worked the White Star line. The five older members who played as a quintet in the first class area were Wallace H. Hartley, 33, the bandmaster, Jock Hume, 29, first violin, Fred Clark, 30, bass violin, Percy Taylor, 32, piano, and John Wesley Woodward, 32, on cello. Three younger musicians filled in with the main band, and also played as a trio in the second class cabin and restaurant: Theodore Brailey, 24, piano, Georges Krins, 23, violin, and Roger Bricoux, 20, cello.
They played songs from their usual sets, first in the first class lounge on the A Deck, which had an upright piano, when it was unclear what had happened to the ship. Later, they moved outside the lounge to the main deck, where they continued to play (without the piano) when it became more likely that the ship would not survive the night.
They played popular music–light waltzes and ragtime, remembered by one survivor as "lively airs." The White Star Line had a songbook for the musicians who played on their cruises, the White Star Line Songbook. In the book were popular favorites like Alexander's Ragtime Band, the 1911 hit song for young American songwriter Irving Berlin, "Oh You Beautiful Doll," Offenbach's Barcarolle waltz, and the Blue Danube Waltz. Ragtime was a relatively "new" style, and most of the passengers who recalled specific songs that night remembered the more classical ones such as "Songe d'Automne" and "Valse Septembre."
By 2 a.m., the last lifeboat had left the ship, and yet there were still over 1,500 people on board. The giant gash that had ripped into the hull had allowed the sea water to begin filling the lower holds of the ship, and so the front of the Titanic, the bow, sank lower and lower into the water, and towards the end the back of the ship, the stern began to rise out of the water.
When it became clear that all was lost, bandmaster Hartley dismissed the small band that had played now for about two hours. By some accounts, one musician, either the violin or cello, began to play a hymn, which some remembered as "Nearer My God to Thee." The other musicians joined in.
Musicians, when inspired, play from their heart, and no doubt in this circumstance, and knowing you are probably playing the last song that you will ever play, your emotions flow into the song. That was the last song of the night, the last of the crossing, the last song these musicians ever played. Its sounds floated out over the ocean to the lifeboats that had pulled away from the sinking ship.
The band no doubt said their thanks to each other, "It was great playing with you," and then their goodbyes. In that situation, each person makes peace with his thoughts. Bandleader Hartley still had hope: he put his violin in its case, and found rope to strap it to his body. Minutes later, at 2:28 a.m., the ship plunged into the sea and disappeared from view.
All of the musicians died. The bodies of three were recovered: Hume, Clark and Hartley. Hartley's violin was still strapped to his body. The violin disappeared into history, but recently resurfaced. It has been a gift from his fiancé, and was inscribed on the back: “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement. From Maria.” After Hartley's body was recovered, the violin was sent back to Maria, as she mentions it in her diary.
Clark was on his first trip across the Atlantic. He had never played for White Star before, but the company wanted the best musicians to play for the greatest ship in the world, and so offered him good pay to make just one trip. His winter concert season had just ended, and so he finally accepted.
A fellow White Star musician and friend heard the news and lamented, "The thing I can't realize is that happy Jock Hume is dead. He was the merriest, happiest young Scotchman you ever saw. His family have been making musical instruments in Scotland for generations. I heard him say once that they were minstrels in the old days. It is certainly hard to believe that he is not alive and having his fun somewhere in the world."
Many of the bodies that were recovered were brought to shore in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three cemeteries there are the final resting place of 150 of the passengers that night, including musicians Hume and Clark. Hartley's body was returned to his home town of Colne, England.
In the 100 years since that night, some have criticized the band, for playing light music, for setting a mood that may have convinced some passengers that they did not really need to get into the lifeboats. There is debate about whether they actually played "Nearer My God to Me." There are several tunes to which the hymn is sung, two of which were more popular in England and one more popular in America.
The first British tune is called "Horbury," and was composed by British composer John Bacchus Dykes. A second tune for the hymn, popular with British Methodists, is "Propior Deo" (Nearer to God), written by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan).
The American tune is called "Bethany," and was composed by American composer Lowell Mason (best known for "Joy to the World"). Several surviving passengers claim to have heard the hymn from their lifeboats, but the American passengers heard the American version, and the British passengers heard an English version. Which tune was actually played? The answer went down with the ship.
I leave it to Captain Hindsight and Colonel Quibble to wrangle about the details. As a musician and a band member, I applaud these men for what they did. If faced with the same prospect, if I knew that I had one hour to live, what better way to spend it than playing music with my musical friends, and performing for a crowd who needed the calming and the hope that music provides?
For one version of this final performance, check out this YouTube clip from the 1958 movie, "A Night To Remember."
For the boys in the band that night, your fellow musicians remember you and salute you.
"Still all my song shall be, nearer my God to Thee."
REMINDER: This Wednesday night, the Newtown Square Historical Society hosts Dr. Joseph Edgette who will speak on the Titanic, and its Philadelphia connections. Program starts at 7:45 p.m. in the Dunwoody Home auditorium in Newtown Square. The programs are free, open to all, and refreshments are served afterwards.