In 1912 the music scene was on the eve of many transformations. At that time popular music, born of divergent cultural influences in the USA, was beginning to have an infectious appeal to audiences. Ragtime was making it big abroad, as was jazz. And yet, the music of the Romantic era was still the bread and butter of performing musicians. Popular music was still only a sideline diversion. Tchaikovsky was second only to Strauss in the number of selections in the White Star Line Songbook.
In pre-WWI composition the limits of tonality were stretched by impressionist composers, and yet music was still several years away from the widespread use of atonality. When the Titanic sailed an entire room of people in First or Second Class could listen to music by trained composers or popular music by self-trained musicians and recognize it all. “Classical” and popular music shared the same stage. Those paths were soon to part, and throughout the twentieth century university-trained composers would become more and more alienated from the listening, paying public. Their music was often very good, but it didn’t balance accessibility with art.
So, to a trained musician, the Titanic sailed in the golden age of trained musicians. A classically trained performer could make a decent living playing on a ship to an appreciative audience. Conservatories were turning their graduates out into a world where they could find real work performing in hotels, tearooms, in public orchestras and bands, not to mention major symphony orchestras. And real composers were getting “prime time air play,” so to speak.
Major composers are highly regarded for a reason: their music reaches a rare level of artistry. Minor composers are obscure for a reason: their music fills a need for a while, and is then easily replaced by a fresh crop of minor composers. Somehow the major composers produce irreplaceable music that remains fresh. Or, at least that is how it should be. In the twentieth century the composers who were supposed to be the major figures fell into obscurity because their music no longer appealed to the public. New classical music suddenly had a very small sphere of influence, and was limited mostly to the academic circles that surrounded schools of music in universities.
Do you recognize this music?
Arnold Schoenberg, Piano Concerto Op. 42, composed with the Twentieth Century atonal technique.
Do you recognize this music?
Sergei Rachmaninoff, c minor Piano Concerto, composed in the Twentieth Century, but influenced by music of the Romantic period.
A WSL songbook in use on the Olympic in 1934 reflects a public abandonment of music by current trained composers, with only two selections I can see, Valse Triste by Sibelius and a Prelude by Rachmaninoff, both who composed after the style of Romantic masters.
It is an indulgence to think back to the era in which the Titanic sailed and wonder whether “trained composer” music would have kept its market share had universities not so uniformly pushed one style of composition over others. The academic world took all the young talent and steered it in one direction. And perhaps in doing so, lost its larger public audience.
Did Titanic have 'palm court' performances?
Composers in Titanic's WSL songbook - Who made the list?
The art of arranging Titanic's music