06 December 2007

...And The Band Played On

The story of Titanic's bandsmen playing to the bitter end has become an integral part of the Titanic legend. Their bravery for completing the task they set to do and give up their lives has been heralded as nothing short of heroic. Scholars, however, have continued to debate on what the band played for its final song...

The final moments of the Titanic produced many stirring tales of bravery and heroism: officers who stayed on deck to load and launch lifeboats until all the boats were safely away, engine room crew who worked away well below decks to keep power and Violin lights running as long as possible, wireless operators who remained at their posts even after the captain released them from duty, and passengers who stood aside so that others might have their seats in the too-few lifeboats.

All these people gallantly risked their lives so that others might have a better chance of survival; not because they had to, but because they felt it was their duty.

One of most compelling of these tales of self-sacrifice is that of the Titanic's band. They weren't part of the ship's crew (although they nominally signed ship's orders, they were carried as passengers), and they weren't needed to keep the power running or to load the lifeboats; likely no one would have protested if they had sought places in lifeboats. Instead, of their own volition, they stayed with the ship until the very end, steadfastly playing light, airy music to help keep passengers calm while the available lifeboats were loaded. Can you imagine how creepy?

None of the gallant band members survived the sinking, but their memories are sure to survive as long as the Titanic is a subject of interest, for one of the endlessly debated pieces of Titanic minutiae concerns the identity of the final song played by the band just before the ship began its final plunge beneath the waves.

Part of the fascination with this subject undoubtedly stems from the fact that the question is ultimately unanswerable, since none of the band members lived to talk, and accounts from surviving passengers and crew members are unreliable and contradictory. With no other evidence available to us, the identity of that final song will remain an eternal mystery.

Many different tunes have been put forth as the final song, but for now we'll focus on the only two that have any real weight of evidence behind them: "Nearer, My God, to Thee" and "Songe d'Automne"

The primary (and only) evidence for latter comes from an interview given to The New York Times by Harold Bride, the Titanic's junior wireless operator, immediately upon his arrival in New York aboard the rescue ship Carpathia:

When I was dragged aboard the Carpathia I went to the hospital at first. I stayed there for ten hours. I took the key, and I never left the wireless cabin after that.

Our captain had left us at this time, and Phillips told me to run and tell him what the Carpathia had answered. I did so, and I went through an awful mass of people to his cabin. The decks were full of scrambling men and women.

I went to my cabin and dressed.

Every few minutes Phillips would send me to the Captain with little messages ... I noticed as I came back from one trip that they were putting off women and children in lifeboats.

I went out on deck and looked around. The water was pretty close up to the boat deck.

I thought it was time to look about and see if there was anything detached that would float. I remembered [my lifebelt] under my bunk. I went and got it.

I saw a collapsible boat near a funnel and went over to it. I looked out. The boat deck was awash.

From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a rag-time tune, I don't know what. Then there was "Songe d'Automne". Phillips ran aft, and that was the last I ever saw of him alive.

I went to the place I had seen the collapsible boat on the boat deck, and to my surprise I saw the boat and the men still trying to push it off. I guess there wasn't a sailor in the crowd. They couldn't do it. I went up to them and was just lending a hand when a large wave came awash of the deck.

The big wave carried the boat off. I had hold of an oarlock, and I went off with it.

Smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel. There must have been an explosion, but we had heard none. We only saw the big stream of sparks. The ship was gradually turning on her nose — just like a duck does that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind — to get away from the suction.

The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down.

They were playing "Songe d'Automne" then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic on her nose, with her afterquarter sticking up in the air, began to settle — slowly.

The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while still we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebeltt on, it was still on deck playing "Songe d'Automne".

How they ever did it I cannot imagine

Harold Bride can be considered a credible witness because he was not an excited, wild-eyed passenger, but a professional whose job required intense concentration and attention to detail and who remained at his post (at the risk of his life) even after being released from duty by the captain.

He undeniably remained on board the Titanic until the very end, leaving only when a wave washed him off the deck. He was isolated during the trip to New York aboard the rescue ship, spending the first ten hours in the hospital and the rest of the voyage in the wireless room assisting the Carpathia's telegraph operator, and thus had little chance to be influenced by stories and rumours related by other passengers.

Bride told his story immediately upon his arrival in New York, while the memories were still fresh in his mind. Some details of Bride's story are cause for concern, however, for he was the only person aboard the Titanic who reported hearing the band play "Songe d'Automne" as their last song.

"Songe d'Automne" was not included in the White Star book of music that all the Titanic musicians were expected to know by heart, and the last moments on board a sinking ship would be an unusual time to improvise (although some writers have reported that a few passengers claimed to recall hearing the band play "Songe d'Automne," earlier in the voyage.)

The tune that by far the most Titanic survivors reported as the band's final piece of music was, "Nearer, My God, to Thee," a hymn manifestly appropriate in sentiment for the last moments of a doomed ship. A few facets of the available evidence are cause for consternation in accepting this claim, however, for some survivors who remained aboard the Titanic until the very end stated that they did not hear the band play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" at any time.

A former colleague of the Titanic's bandmaster, Wallace Hartley, reported that years earlier he had asked Hartley what he would do if he found himself on the deck of a sinking ship. Hartley responded that he would gather the band together to play "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" or "Nearer, My God, to Thee." The latter was reportedly Hartley's favorite hymn, and it was regularly played at the funerals of members of the Musicians' Union.

Whatever the truth of the Titanic's "last song" legend, one irrefutable fact, however, remains the musicians stayed until all hope of rescue was gone. Who can say how many lives their efforts
saved? The memory of the bandsmen and their courageous music will never die.

Songe d'Automne (45 sec .wav file, 681 KB)

There is a CD called Titanic: Music As Heard On The Fateful Voyage which British conductor, musicologist, and producer Ian Whitcomb put together. Its a re-creation of songs played on board the Titanic the night of the ship's fateful plunge including "Songe d'Automne (Dream Of Autumn): Dream Of Autumn" as the final track on the CD. Creepy.

Whitcomb's White Star Orchestra assumes the ghost of bandleader Wallace Hartley, who entertained the first- and second-class passengers from the lounge and eventually atop the decks of the sinking vessel.

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