The Famous Titanic Band
The eight members of Titanic’s Band

The Titanic band is one of the most mysterious and legendary tales that come from the ill-fated ocean liner. Wallace Hartley led the titanic’s eight-member band, and upon panic of the passengers during Titanic’s sinking, assembled in the first-class lounge to play in an effort to keep everyone calm. As the ship continued to plunge, the band moved to the forward half of the boat deck and continued playing even when their doom became apparent. All members of the Titanic band died that night while playing. However, the final song they played is still up to much debate.

Mrs Vera Dick, a first-class Canadian passenger, reported that the band’s final song was the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee”. However, reports indicate that Mrs Dick had left by way of the lifeboat an hour and twenty minutes previously and could not have witnessed the band’s final song.

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Although, the band’s leader, Hartley, did say once to a friend that if he were on a sinking ship, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” would be among the songs he would play.

Harold Bride, one of the wireless operators, reported in 1912 that he had heard the song “Autumn” just before the ship sunk to the depths of the sea. This account of Harold Bride was popularized in the Walter Lord book A Night to Remember. Despite this, neither the hymn “Autumn”, nor the closest version to it, the waltz “Song d’Automne”, were in the White Star Line songbook for the band. This remains the best testimonial as Bride was the only person who could have possibly heard the band’s last song, as he floated off the deck just before the ship went down.

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Legend has it that the band played “Nearer my God to thee” just moments before Titanic sank.

The questioning of whether or not the band played “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as their final farewell is thought to have originated as a myth from the wrecking of SS Valencia in 1906 in Canada, which may have had an impact on Mrs Dick’s selective memory.

Furthermore, two versions for “Nearer, My God, to Thee” exist, including a British version and an American version with very different musical settings. In the film A Night to Remember, the British version is used; while the 1953 film, Titanic incorporates the American version as its swan song. 

The following is excerpted from The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the Eight Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic (Thomas Nelson, 2011), by Steve Turner.

Mrs. Ada Clarke, one of the first to tell the story of “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” left her husband behind because he urged her to get into a lifeboat even though she wanted to remain with him. She saw him standing on the deck as the ship sank. Ida Straus, wife of the multimillionaire philanthropist Isidor Straus, elected to stay by her husband and they both calmly faced death together, seated and holding hands. W.T. Stead apparently remained in his chair as though the next life was merely a last-minute change of destination.

The hundreds of similar stories of stoicism, charity, and self-sacrifice heartened people, encouraging them to think that they weren’t such a bad lot after all. Despite never having to display their best selves in the heat of war, a randomly selected cross-section had managed to face life’s most intense moment and emerge from it with glory. “We are rearing a self-reliant race—a race of men and women well equipped for the battle of life,” roared an editorial in the South London Observer on April 24.

“The heroism on the ill-fated Titanic shows conclusively that we have not degenerated since the days of Nelson. It was the same old British puck which in the past often carried the Union Jack to victory.”

Henry Van Dyke, professor of English literature at Princeton, believed that the very procedure of putting women and children first was an instinctive application of a Christian principle. If earning power, physical strength, or social standing had prevailed, it would have been men first, women second, and children last of all. He asked where this rule originated.

“It comes from God, through the faith of Jesus of Nazareth,” he argued in the New York Times. “It is the ideal of self-sacrifice. It is the rule that ‘the strong ought to bear the infirmities of those that are weak.’ It is the divine revelation that is summed up in the words: Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends. It needs a tragic catastrophe like the wreck of the Titanic to bring out the absolute contradiction between this ideal and all the counsels of materialism and selfish expediency.”

Even those who didn’t see specifically Christian values emerge were at least pleased that Western civilization’s codes of behaviour had survived amid the chaos. Van Dyke continued:

There was no disorder, no rioting, and the rule of the sea prevailed over the first law of nature. With the band playing and the lights of the sinking ship still burning, the doomed company awaited the end. They died like heroes, they died like men. It is a tragic and dreadful story, but it tells us how civilization conquers the primal, savage instincts and brings into being and dominance the higher and nobler qualities of man’s nature. There is not in history a more splendid and inspiring example of self-control, of sacrifice, of courage and of manliness.

This is why the band emerged as such heroes. Not only had they behaved dutifully and without apparent concern for their safety, but they also offered the hope that not all of the younger male generation were venial, lazy, proud, irreligious, inconsiderate, self-indulgent, weak-willed and timorous.

The example of the band suggested that the doom-mongers may have got it wrong because, unlike soldiers, they hadn’t trained to face danger and had come straight to the deck from the heart of the early-20th-century splendour and luxury.

If eight random men could display such strength of character in unison on the spur of the moment, the chances were that another eight randomly selected would react similarly.

There was an element of truth to this, but it overlooked the vital role played by Wallace Hartley as bandmaster. Although it’s unknown whether the band played voluntarily or under orders, the men were under Hartley’s command, and his influence set the tone. He left behind no written confession of faith, but all indications are that his childhood faith had continued into adulthood.

His moral character and his personal assurance that death was not the end must have stirred his bandsmen, all of whom had at least grown up in the church. The choice of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was almost certainly due to Hartley’s familiarity with the hymn and love for its message, something he had already confirmed to friends. Would the band have behaved in the same way under a dissolute and immoral leader or would someone not raised on the music of the church have chosen a hymn to restore calm amidst tragedy?

In the absence of detailed information on each bandsman’s life, it’s hard to pass judgment on the development of their moral character. In speaking of them as heroic, it’s tempting to think that in childhood each of them was unafraid of pain and displayed unique signs of self-control and willingness to sacrifice, but the chances are that some were quite naturally brave and others just as naturally fearful. As has been wryly observed: “A hero is just a coward who got cornered.”

Yet together as a band under Hartley’s leadership, they transcended their personal limitations. The music itself played a significant role in boosting their nerve. It’s long been known that music can alter moods. In the 17th century, the Restoration playwright William Congreve wrote the lines: “Music has the charm to soothe the savage breast. To soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.”

If the quote attributed to Wallace Hartley is anything to go by, he would have concurred with this sentiment: “I have always felt that, when men are called to face death suddenly, music is far more effective in cheering them on than all the firearms in creation.”

George Orrell, bandmaster on the Carpathia in 1912, told Herman Finck, musical director of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and author of “In the Shadows,” which the band allegedly played on deck, that the musicians on any ship at the time were accustomed to the idea that they would be asked to play at any time that passengers were distressed

“The ship’s band in any emergency is expected to play to calm the passengers,” he said.

After the Titanic struck the iceberg, the band began to play bright music, dance music, comic songs—anything that would prevent the passengers from becoming panic-stricken. The ship was so badly holed that it was soon obvious that disaster was ahead. Then various awe-stricken passengers began to think of the death that faced them and asked the bandmaster to play hymns. The one which appealed to all was, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Orrell got his information not from news reports, but directly from the rescued passengers he spoke to on the Carpathia.

The effect of the music on passengers awaiting rescue appears to have been one of reassurance. When everything else on the Titanic was being turned upside down, the music remained the same. In the midst of mind-jarring abnormality, it was the one thing that retained its familiarity. For those out on the water, it provided a bizarre soundtrack to a sight that so many would only be able to describe as “like watching a moving picture.”

It also appears to have inspired singing in the lifeboats. Passengers spoke of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” being sung by the survivors as they drifted on the water, but it’s unclear whether they were singing along to the band or whether what the band had played had stayed with them.

It was a perfect media package—ordinariness to connect them with the ordinary reader, bravery to act as an inspiration, and a piece of music that could become a signature tune for the whole event. Whenever there was a funeral, a memorial service, or a fund-raising event, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” would be played and the story of the band’s final stand was automatically brought to mind.

During the next two years, the immensity of the Titanic tragedy would be pored over in many books, magazines, and newspaper specials, but in the summer of 1914 came the start of the First World War and deaths on a previously unimaginable scale. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, more than 20,000 British troops were killed—the equivalent of 13 Titanic disasters.

By the end of the conflict, almost six million soldiers fighting against Germany had lost their lives.

The war helped push the Titanic to the back of people’s minds as words such as tragedy and disaster took on new and deeper meanings.