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21 minutes reading time (4250 words)

The story of music on board the RMS Titanic

The story of music on board the RMS Titanic

It was to be an unforgettable voyage. The RMS Titanic was a ship orchestrated to be grander than any other. For those who designed her she was an achievement of the modern age. For the citizens of Belfast, Ireland, who built her, she was a point of pride. For those who booked passage she was a ship that launched a new life in America, or gave passage home from a European vacation. But no one could have imagined the Titanic as center stage of a great tragedy. 

Music played a significant part in the history of the Titanic, from the time of the ship's design to the hours of her sinking. The musical legacy extended to fundraising concerts that were performed in the aftermath of the tragedy. It is through the Titanic's music that we now revisit this story in its centennial year. 

Music was designed into the very fabric of the ship. There were six pianos on board: one in Third Class, two in Second Class, and three in First Class. The Third Class piano was an upright of unknown origin and manufacture. The Second and First Class pianos were ordered direct from the Steinway factory "rough," meaning they had unfinished cases and were missing components such as the fallboard, pedal lyre, book rest, and legs. These were specially crafted by carpenters, who, after delivery, finished each piano with fine wood or veneer to complement the décor of the room in which the piano was to be installed.1

Even though the hired musicians would never play in Third Class, an upright piano was provided so passengers could play for their own entertainment. It was located in the General Room, a cheery place with long wooden benches, clean white walls, and red-patterned floor tiles. Sheet music was all the rage at the time, and it was common for people to gather round a piano to sing and play favorite tunes. Many Third Class passengers traveled with their own instruments as well. Eugene Daly, an Irishman, had his uilleann pipes aboard and was seen pacing at the stern of the ship playing "Erin's Lament."2 

In the ship's plan, the performance venues in First and Second Class were located in areas where the music would carry throughout the ship, and the Steinway pianos were installed in these places. As the builders and the finishing carpenters completed the lastminute details on Titanic, the pianos were brought on board, some on March 14, others on March 18, about three weeks prior to the departure date of the maiden voyage.3

On April 10, 1912, RMS Titanic sailed out of Southampton, England. Each passenger in the First and Second Classes received a small booklet entitled White Star Line MUSIC. Commonly known as The White Star Line Songbook, it listed the titles and composers of 341 numbers. Besides these there were musical categories such as "National Anthems, Hymns etc., of all nations" and "Strauss Waltzes."It is unknown how many titles in sheet music the hired musicians had available to them. 

Among those who embarked were eight musicians who traveled as Second Class passengers, men who carried instrument boxes along with their luggage. The band had been specially selected by a music agency, C.W. & F. N. Black. Some had experience performing on ocean liners, and others stepped onto Titanic's deck for their first gig on the open sea. Free passage and meals were part of their compensation, plus a small monthly wage. Their true earnings would come from tips. 

It was typical in 1912 for hotel musicians to play in places where they could not be seen by their listeners, often behind plants (thus the term "palm court musician"). This was not the case on the Titanic. The pianos were themselves showpieces, on full display in each room. The intention here was for the musicians to be heard and seen, the music part of the ship's luxury. However, there was a professional distance between the band and the passengers, who would have known the musicians by sight only, not by name.

The RMS Olympic’s First Class Entrance Hall piano, a Steinway model R upright. This piano was located at the Boat Deck entrance at the top of the Grand Staircase

Second Class had one area for performances located in the entrance foyer on C Deck. A five-piece band played here three times daily: 10:00-11:00 a.m., 5:00-6:00 p.m., and 9:15-10:15 p.m.The piano was a Steinway Model K upright, tucked in beside the footings of the main mast, out of the way of passersby, but in a prime spot for concerts. When the doors were opened the music would spill out onto the deck, into the Second Class Library, and down the oak stairwell to all levels. It was a call for passengers to gather together, to divert their attention for a while. 

Kate Buss, a Second Class passenger, recalled a concert she and a friend heard from the stairs. Buss developed a fondness for the band's cellist and wanted to ask him to play a solo, but she had trouble getting up the nerve to speak to him directly. She wrote, "The Cello Man is a favorite of mine. Every time he finishes a piece he looks at me and we smile."6 Another passenger, Juliette Laroche, recounted in a letter, "I am writing from the reading room: there is a concert in here, near me, one violin, two cellos, one piano."7

First Class passengers also heard the five-piece band perform three times a day, but in two main venues. The first was at the top of Titanic's famous Grand Staircase. The piano was a Steinway Model R upright. It had gorgeous detailing and a bench that matched the upholstery of the foyer's chairs.8 The band performed here each day from 11:00 a.m. until noon. At this time of day the sun shone in through the ornate glass dome overhead. This was a Boat Deck entrance, and again, strains of the music would have been heard outside and down the staircase.

Artist’s impression of the Restaurant Reception Room on B Deck, where the string trio played. The doors to the Café Parisien are visible in the background.
Below: Pages from the menu for the First Class Dining Saloon on the evening of April 14, the night of the collision.Top: On the cover is an image of the à la carte Restaurant’s Reception Room, inviting passengers to explore the ship. Middle: This page, found on victim George Graham’s body, contains the signatures of men who dined together that evening.

First Class performances also took place in the Reception Room outside the Dining Saloon on D Deck from 4:00-5:00 p.m. and 8:00-9:15 p.m. Here was Titanic's crowning jewel: a Steinway Model B Drawing Room grand piano. The piano itself was an artisan's masterpiece, finished with mahogany veneers offset by other exotic woods in a design of exquisite marquetry. It stood out in contrast against the white paneled walls of the room, and was complemented by matching music stands and a cabinet for sheet music storage.9 

Helen Churchill Candee, an American writer who sailed in First Class, published her memories of listening to the band in the Reception Room: .

..after dinner there was coffee served to all at little tables around the great general lounging place, for here the orchestra played. 

Some said it was poor on its Wagner work, others said the violin was weak. But that was for conversation's sake, for nothing on board was more popular than the orchestra. You could see that by the way everyone refused to leave it. And everyone asked of it some favorite hit. The prettiest girl asked for dance music, and clocked her satin heels and swayed her adolescent arms to the rhythm. He of the two who had walked the deck [Hugh Woolner] asked for Dvoˇrák, while she asked for Puccini, and both got their liking, for the orchestra was adroit and willing.10

There was one additional performance venue on the Titanic, one that was not fitted with a piano. Titanic had a second band that performed in the First Class Reception Room on B Deck outside the à la carte Restaurant and Café Parisien. This band was a string trio, and its musicians performed exclusively in this First Class area.11

An aft staircase, similar to the Grand Staircase, led to the Reception Room, which was an expansive landing outside the restaurants. First Class passengers who descended the stairs would have heard the music of the trio before they even breathed in the aromas of the kitchen. Only the elite of Titanic's First Class chose to dine in this area, as these meals were an additional charge on top of the already pricey tickets. ​Besides the performance pianos, both the First and Second Class Dining Saloons were fitted with upright Steinways, the First Class piano a Model R, the Second Class, a Model K. These too were "art case" pianos finished to complement the décor of the rooms. As the hired band did not perform in the saloons during meals, these pianos were in place primarily for Divine Service on Sundays.12

First Class Reception Room piano, music stands, and cabinet, located on the D Deck of the RMS Olympic.

On Sunday, April 14, there were several things on passengers' minds: the sudden drop in temperature; a benefit concert to be put on by passengers the following evening (Monday April 15) for children who had been orphaned by the sea; wireless messages written and sent to relatives and friends; and hymn sings and services that were being organized in First and Second Classes.

At 10:30 a.m. First Class passengers held a service in their Dining Saloon. Colonel Archibald Gracie recalled singing Oh God Our Help in Ages Past and feeling the poignancy of the words.13 Passengers spent the afternoon in the writing room and library, discussing the speed of the Titanic and whether they would arrive in New York onWednesday morning or as early as Tuesday night.14

There were rumors in First Class that Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, had shown off a wireless message that warned of icebergs and made a joke that they would "...put on more steam and run away from them."15 Depending on where passengers found themselves Sunday night they sang hymns or sipped hot drinks as they listened to the band. 

Robert Norman, a Scottish engineer, played the piano for an informal Sunday night hymn sing in the Second Class Dining Saloon. Lawrence Beesley recalled the hushed tones with which the congregation sang The Mariner's Hymn, "...for those in peril on the sea."16

The five-piece band performed their evening concert in the First Class Reception Room outside the Dining Saloon. Colonel Archibald Gracie was in attendance with his friends, where he listened to the "always delightful music" and appreciated the parade of many beautiful women who were in full formal attire. The Countess of Rothes noted that the last piece played was from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman.17 At the close of the performance Helen Churchill Candee remembered, "Folk drifted off to their cabins, with happy 'see-you-in-themornings,' until a group formed itself alone, and the only sounds the musicians made were those of instruments being shut in their velvet beds."18

Titanic's five-piece band

Wallace Hartley, violinist from Colne, England, age 33. He became known as the one who led the band, in the final moments, in the playing of Nearer, My God, to Thee. On the Titanic, he had been bandleader of the five-piece band. His body was recovered from the sea (No. 224) and returned to Colne, where he was given a funeral that received international press coverage.31 This voyage was planned as his last before he gave up the sea to marry. Percy 

Cornelius Taylor, instrument unconfirmed, London, England, age 40. He was the only musician who was married, though estranged from his wife. He was usually listed as Titanic's second pianist, though it is now thought the ship had only one. There is little known about him; there were no obituaries printed for him or relatives who spoke of him to the press.32 This was his first voyage as a bandsman, and his body was not recovered. 

John Wesley (Wes) Woodward, cellist from Hill Top, England, age 32. He was a well-traveled musician and a favorite wherever he went. Prior to being selected to play on Titanic he had performed in a Jamaican hotel, in bands, orchestras, and in hotels in England, as well as on steamers. He played in the five-piece band. Perhaps it was he who smiled at Kate Buss. His body was not recovered. 

John F.P. (Fred) Clarke, double bassist from Manchester, England, age 28. Prior to joining Titanic's maiden voyage (also his first voyage as a bandsman), Clarke had had extensive experience playing in symphonies and pit orchestras in Liverpool and Birkenhead. His body was recovered (No. 202) and buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.33

William Theodore (Theo) Brailey, pianist from Essex, England, age 24. As a teenager he joined the army to play in the band and was educated at the Royal Military School of Music in England. He was noted as an exceptionally good performer on the piano. He was engaged to wed when he joined Titanic's five-piece band, and he was planning to end his sailing days after a few more trips. His body was not recovered.

The Quintet then performed in the Second Class entrance foyer. Kate Buss made her way to the performance after attending the hymn sing. "That night," Buss remembered, "the pianist had asked me if I would mind taking round the subscription, as I had appreciated the music." Later, "I saw the pianist as I was going to bed, and I promised." ("Taking the subscription" refers to collecting tips that would be presented to the musicians on the last day of the voyage.) 

The à la carte Restaurant and Café Parisien were open all hours. Mahala Douglas dined in the restaurant that Sunday night, going in at about 8 o'clock, and heard the musicians playing in the corridor outside.19

Violet Jessop, a First Class stewardess, also heard the trio's performance in passing. "On that Sunday evening, the music was at its gayest, led by young Jock the first violin; when I ran into him during the interval [smoke break], he laughingly called out to me in his rich Scotch accent, that he was about to give them a 'real tune, a Scotch tune, to finish up with.'"20 After the trio finished their lively performance, patrons lingered in the restaurant and café. Hugh Woolner recalled sitting with a party of about six, drinking hot whisky and water. 

It had suddenly become very cold in the lounge [Reception Room] and restaurant and the lady of our party had gone off to her room. Then we men strolled up just above to the smoking room and had been seated only a few minutes when there came a heavy grinding sort of shock beginning far ahead of us in the bows and rapidly passing along the ship and away under our feet. Everyone sprang up and ran out through the swing doors astern. A man in front of me called out that he had seen an iceberg towering fifty feet above the deck, which was 100 feet above the sea, and passing astern.21

At 11:45 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, a sudden stillness filled every cabin of the great steamer. It was the silence of the engines, which had stopped. 

Violet Jessop, who had retired for the night, got dressed once again and made her way along a corridor. "As I turned, I ran into Jock (the bandleader) and his crowd with their instruments. 'Funny, they must be going to play,' thought I, and at this late hour! Jock smiled in passing, looking rather pale for him, remarking, 'Just going to give them a tune to cheer things up a bit,' and passed on. Presently the strains of the band reached me faintly as I stood on deck watching...."22

The musicians began playing at about 12:15 a.m. at the top of the Grand Staircase. They were dressed in their regular uniforms with green facings, giving the impression that all was normal. Only for this performance the electric lights were all ablaze and it was the star-studded black night beyond the ornate glass dome. Jack Thayer remembered that the crowd was restless, milling in and out of the foyer, not paying much attention to the music.23 It filtered down the staircase and out onto the decks. Colonel Gracie on A Deck heard it well. 

There was a door that led from the top of the Grand Staircase to the forward part of the ship where officers worked. Just one turn down this corridor was the Marconi room, where the wireless operators had been sending the distress signals C.Q.D. and S.O.S. since 11:55 p.m. Harold Bride, assistant operator, heard the band's music "...first while we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us...."24

Titanic's trio:

John Law ( Jock) Hume, violinist from Dumfries, Scotland, age 21. For one hundred years his role on Titanic has been misunderstood, but he was correctly identified by stewardess Violet Jessop as First violin and bandleader. On Titanic he led the string trio, which played next to the restaurants. In Jessop's words, "Always so eager and full of life was Jock."34 His body was recovered (No. 193) and buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.35 Jock had been engaged to Mary Costin, and on October 18, 1912, she gave birth to his daughter, Johnann.36

Roger Bricoux, cellist from Cosne-sur-Loire, France, age 20. He was educated in fine conservatories, including Mozart's alma mater, Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna, Italy.37 Bricoux found professional work in Leeds, England, and then on liners prior to joining Titanic's string trio. His accent also added a touch of authenticity to the Café's atmosphere. His body was not recovered. 

Georges Alexandre Krins, violinist from Spa, Belgium, age 23. He was educated at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Liège, where he won prizes in performance and theory, and went on to a performance career in Spa, Paris, and then at the Ritz Hotel in London. He was chosen for Titanic's trio as his French accent added to the Continental flavor of the restaurants. His body was not recovered. Titanic's voyage was his first.

The RMS Olympic’s First Class Dining Saloon Piano, a Steinway Model R upright. The marquetry and barley-twist legs were borrowed directly from the Reception Room grand. This piano was used primarily for accompaniment during Divine Services on Sunday mornings.

Most passengers reflected the state of the ship, calm on the surface but with a deepening turmoil churning underneath. The band was playing Alexander's Ragtime Band as May Futrelle stood discussing the situation with her husband and other First Class pas-stokers burst up the stairs from the depths of the hold. "In a moment we understood that the situation was desperate, that the compartments had refused to hold back the rush of water."25 

The order went out that women and children were to go to the promenade on A Deck. As Second Officer Herbert Lightoller loaded lifeboat No. 6 he "...could hear the band playing cheery sort of music. I don't like jazz music as a rule, but I was glad to hear it that night. I think it helped us all."26 American philanthropist Margaret Brown was in lifeboat No. 6. As the boat was lowered she was "...conscious of strains of music being wafted on the night air...."27

By 1:45 a.m. the musicians had put on their lifebelts and continued to play. Meanwhile, the scene was unfolding like a bad dream. The women and children were separated from the men. Lifeboats were loaded and lowered, many with empty spaces. And the band kept playing. They played beyond the point of hope for survival. William Sloper recalled, "Some of the rescued people who were the last to leave the ship told me that when they left the orchestra was playing...and that it was brave but ghastly to hear them."28

Captain Smith released the wireless operators from duty at 2:10 a.m. Harold Bride struggled with other men to disentangle one of the last collapsible lifeboats. At 2:17 the bow was awash and the lifeboat floated free upside-down with Bride on top. "She was a beautiful sight then," he remembered looking back at the ship. "Smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel.... The ship was gradually turning on her nose.... The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing Autumn then."29 

At least two men who went down with the ship (and survived) noticed that the band had stopped playing moments before the final plunge: "...when I first came on deck," A. H. Barkworth wrote, "the band was playing a waltz. The next time I passed ... the members had thrown down their instruments, and were not to be seen."30 It should be noted that when the band stopped all the lifeboats were gone and they had about three minutes to spare. RMS Titanic sank at approximately 2:20 a.m. All eight bandsmen were lost. 

To the last, the band remained anonymous. Not one passenger account mentioned them by name. But in the early days of press coverage, they emerged as heroes, having sacrificed everything for the sake of others. Many survivors testified that from their lifeboats they had heard Nearer, My God, To Thee as the final number. This gave a measure of comfort to all who lost someone. The public wanted to know: Who were these eight brave men? 

As weeks passed, the public became aware that the band they admired was not covered by Workmen's Compensation. As Second Class passengers, they had not officially sailed as crew. On the night of the sinking, Captain Smith had not given the order for the band to play, nor did he relieve them of their post near the end, for they were not under his command. The public understood that the band had chosen to act as they did. 

There was a public outcry to give some compensation to the families of the eight musicians who had died. Benefit concerts were organized on both sides of the Atlantic. The one held in Royal Albert Hall, London, on May 24 was performed by an amalgamation of seven orchestras, seven conductors taking turns, Sir Edward Elgar being one. 

The unselfish actions of Titanic's band had touched a deep chord with many people. The Titanic, initially a symbol of man's highest accomplishment, had instead become a symbol of pride before a fall. But out of the depths of the disaster had arisen this new hope for humanity. The stories that were told of Wallace Hartley's belief that music could buoy spirits and maintain calm in the face of the unknown restored faith in human nature. If the normal human reactions to adversity are "fight or flight," Titanic's band demonstrated that, through music, there is a third, more elevated choice. In the face of death they had given their gift, their musical offering, in the hopes that others might be saved.

1 Beveridge, B., Andrews, S., Hall, S., & Klistorner, D. (2008). Titanic: The Ship Magnificent Volume Two: Interior Design and Fitting Out. (Braunschweiger, A., Ed.). Stoud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, p. 130. 

2 Molony, S. (2000). The Irish Aboard Titanic. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, p. 8. 

3 Beveridge, p. 135. 

4 White Star Line MUSIC (Reproduction, 1999). Indian Orchard, MA: Titanic Historical Society, pp. 1-8. 

5 Beveridge, p. 27. 

6 Behe, G. (2011). On Board RMS Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage. Lexington, KY: Lulu.com Press, p. 94. 

7 Ibid., p. 104. 

8 Beveridge, p. 131. 

9 Ibid., p. 132. 

10 Candee, H. (1912). "Sealed Orders." Collier's Weekly Magazine, May 4.

11 Beveridge, p. 282. 

12 Ibid., p. 133. 

13 Turner, S. (2011). The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic. Nashville,TN: Thomas Nelson, p. 131. 

14 Beesley, L. (1960). "The Loss of the S.S.Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons." From The Story of the TITANIC as told by its Survivors. (Winocour, J., Ed.). New York: Dover, p. 22. 

15 Behe, p. 277. 

16 Beesley, p. 24. 

17 Turner, p. 132. 

18 Candee. 

19 Behe, p. 278. 

20 Jessop, V. (1997). Titanic Survivor. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Sheridan House, p. 124. 

21 Behe, p. 179.

22 Jessop, p. 129.

23 Barczewski, S. (2004). Titanic: A Night Remembered. New York: Hambledon Continuum, p. 132. 

24 Bride, H. (1912). "The Thrilling Tale by Titanic's Surviving Wireless Man." The New York Times, April 28. In Winocour, Ed., p. 320. 

25 Behe, p. 290.

26 Turner, p. 141. 

27 Behe, p. 219. 

28 Ibid., p. 176. 

29 Bride, in Winocour, Ed., pp. 317-318. 

30 Barczewski, p. 132. 

31 Beed, B. (2001). Titanic Victims in Halifax Graveyards. Dtours Visitors and Convention Service: Halifax, Canada, p. 59.

32 Turner, p. 101. 

33 Beed, p. 118. 

34 Jessop, p. 124. 

35 Beed, pp. 95-96. 

36 Ward, C. (2011). And the Band Played On. London: Hodder & Stoughton, p. 169. 

37 Turner, p. 51.

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