Friday, 17 February 2012

Titanic's final number: Cello penetrates other sounds

Speaking of acoustics*, there is one more reason I believe my Three Note Theory* has a good chance of explaining the question of Titanic’s final number. This point depends on the accuracy of the arrangements of Songe d’automne. In present-day arrangements it is the cello, in its upper register, that plays the melody of the introduction.

The original key signature of Songe d’automne is c minor. The first three notes are as follows: G, F and E-flat above Middle C.


One reason I believe Titanic’s survivors heard this melody wafted on the air for one brief moment was because the instrument playing the tune was indeed the cello.

Here is the cello’s range. You can see that Songe d’automne’s opening phrase falls within its mid-to-high register.

The cello's open strings and range
(15ma indicates two octaves higher)


Compare that to the violin’s range, and the same notes would fall within this instrument’s low register.

The violin's open strings and range

The significance of this comparison has to do with each instrument’s ability to project within this specific range.

Because the cello is a much bigger instrument than the violin physically, G, F and E-flat above Middle C on the cello would carry with more volume of sound, and be more “dynamic” than the same pitches on the violin.

The sound of the solo cello in the mid-to-high register has a gripping, wrenching quality. In this range a single cello can be heard above an entire orchestra. It is the same with the violin in its own upper range. But the violin playing the pitches G, F, and E-flat above Middle C (the opening of Songe d’automne) would not have the same level of strength as the cello on the same pitches. The violin playing this music solo would have a deep-honey, fuzzy quality, and would not carry as well.

Dvorak Cello Concerto (the cello begins at 4:30) with notes in the mid-to-high register:


In the same way the cello can be heard above an orchestra, a cello playing the waltz’s introduction would have had the dynamic power to penetrate through the other noises on Titanic in her last moments.

It is true that most people have become accustomed to the idea that Titanic’s band played Nearer, My God, To Thee and that it was Wallace Hartley’s violin that carried the tune. But there is a real possibility that the last music truly played by the band was Songe d’automne and that it was Wes Woodward’s cello that carried the tune. It was the sound of the cello that carried over the glassy water with three recognizable notes that starry, fateful night. Three notes that, heard by listeners in drifting lifeboats, were interpreted as the first three notes of the famous hymn, Nearer, My God, To Thee.
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Related Posts
Titanic's final number: Grand Acoustics
Titanic's final number: Three Note Theory
Titanic's quintet: Who was the cellist?

13 comments:

  1. This entire subjects is so obscure and mysterious. And all this because of one testimony of Harold Bride who said that he heard "Autumn". I don't know what to think about all that. But Bride's testimony needs to have the reason. It is so strange: everybody was saying about "Nearer My God To Thee" and one person witnessed some mysterious "Autumn". Was Harold Bride much enough musicaly-experienced to recognize the title of the tune? Were conditions enough good to make him hear the music well? Did passengers in lifeboats heard the music? We can try to answer these questions but we can't say for sure anything.
    So do you personally think that it was "Songe d'Automne" Rebekah? I don't know. We never find it out.

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  2. Rebekah, I listened to opening notes of orchestral versions of Songe d'Automne and Nearer my God to Thee for melodys Bethany, Propior Deo and Horbury and I have to admit that your theory is very interesing! It is Really similar. Especially Bethany and Propior Deo. Horbury is not so much. But so the question is how much people witnessed to hear Nearer My God to Thee and here were they (on lifeboats or onboard)? But as the opening tunes passes, there are next notes, not so similar. Could a person be so sure that one heard Nearer My God to Thee, only hearing the shreds of opening notes? Or maybe Harold Bride was mistaken?

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  3. Actually, listening to all these tracks, I finally found some similarity between all these three Nearer... melodys and some inner notes of Songe d'Automne.
    I created a helpful audio track:
    http://www.sendspace.com/file/uavufb
    first is Horbury, next Songe d'Automne, next Propior Deo.
    Listen to that. Then listen to Horbury and Propior Deo and try to hum Songe d'Automne melody while you are listening. I think that some parts of these melodys of Nearer... are very similar to some parts of Autumn. They are easy to mistake in conditions in lifeboats (or to make delusion).
    Did any passenger onboard sinking ship witnessed to hear Nearer my God to thee?

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  4. But maybe the Harold Bride was mistaken? Everyone witnessed the Nearer but Autumn only him. He was struggling in water, was it then possible for him to hear the music well? In one book, his witness was rejected because the author presumed this pressumption.
    Or was this possible for so many peaple who witnessed hearing "Nearer" to be mistaken?

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    1. All good thoughts. At this point my theory can only be that - a theory - because I live in a generation that will never be able to discuss the event with people who remembered it. I feel Bride's account can be trusted. He had good ears and he was close to the performance. Those in lifeboats thought they had heard NMGTT - they heard an excerpt of Songe d'automne which had an identical tune to NMGTT and thought they had heard the hymn. Then I do believe some began to sing, which means NMGTT was truly heard prior to the ship sinking, but the music did not originate with the band. It wasn't the band's last piece. I look forward to listening to your sound samples.

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  5. Unfortunately, nobody knows if Bride ever heard "Autumn" being played at all, since that allegation appeared in just one single newspaper article that could easily have been jazzed up by a reporter. (Indeed, the fact that Bride never mentioned the tune in any of his primary accounts doesn't bode well for the article's accuracy.)

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    1. So true! At this point all we can do is take the information before us and discuss it.

      In 1912 it was reported that the ship sank in one piece. Conversely, it was also reported that the ship had broken apart and then sank. All people could do was discuss this.... Until the wreck was discovered no one could confirm who was right. It was one passenger's word against another.

      It is a similar situation with the music. Autumn was reported. Nearer, My God, To Thee was reported. I am attempting to figure this out. Because I am an auditory person (I was born with a naturally good ear), I discovered that both Autumn and NMGGT begin with the identical tune. Isn't that fascinating?

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  6. Rebekah, in comment to your previous note I put the question about Scott Joplin. I don't know if you noticed that. I would be glad if you could say a few words on this matter. Thanks!

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    1. From the information in the White Star Line songbook there is no Joplin listed there. C. W. & F. N. Black chose the music titles, and their British musical taste perhaps didn't extend to African-American composers. I'm not sure. This is a good question. I will check my later versions of the W. S. L. songbooks to see if Joplin ever made the cut.

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  7. Did anybody else report "Autumn" besides Bride? It is normally only attributed to him. If that's the case then it was only one man who heard it as apposed to a few like NMGTT. Also, I'm having doubts about the "Three Note Theory". After those three notes played, wouldn't the crowds have realized that two different pieces would/could have been played? One a waltz in 3/4 time and another a hymn in 4/4 time. The songs are entirely different in sound and in rhythm after the three intro notes.

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    1. This is a good question. One must remember how faint the music would have been. The two survivors who heard this music from their lifeboats admitted that they heard the "start" of Nearer, My God, To Thee and that other distracting noises obscured the rest of the music. If you have ever seen James Cameron's TITANIC movie the "distracting noises" would have occurred at the time the men were trying to free collapsible boats A and B from the roof of the Bridge. There was quite a commotion looking for a knife, etc. The band played inside the ship to the very end. Many people picture the band playing outside on the deck and imagine the melodies carrying in full to the lifeboats, but this was not the case. In my theory it is because the cello had the strength to carry over the distracting noises that the first three notes of Songe d'automne were able to carry at all. Even the following notes follow a similar contour to the hymn. The entire scene must be taken into consideration - the band inside, the music sounding faint, the distracting noises, and only two passengers who heard what they thought was a hymn from a distance across the water.

      If you read the post called "Barkworth: Titanic's last waltz" there is corroboration from A. H. Barkworth. The waltz he described does match Songe d'automne. The amazing thing to me is that Bride, a man who made a living from his acute sense of hearing, came through in Titanic's final moments with a positive identification on the music the band was playing. The only people who could match a musician's sensitive sense of hearing would be Marconi wireless operators. I trust Bride's account. Walter Lord felt his account stood out. I agree. There's just something about it.

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    2. Wolfgang,
      A year later, I'm re-reading these posts and comments. Behe makes an interesting point about reporters jazzing up accounts. But it would seem to me there was more "jazzing" going on with NMGGT, as there is no corroboration between accounts that include the hymn. There are wide variances, some had musicians marching, others had a conductor with a baton, still others had the men on the ship kneeling and singing.

      "Autumn" is a less sensational title to begin with, and would have had no impact on Americans whatsoever. I don't see what would have motivated the New York Times to take an account from a British bloke and add a tune popular in London that American's wouldn't have known at all. Reporters looking to jazz up accounts usually do so with details that will resonate with their own audience.

      In fact, this raises an interesting point about nationality and music. Bride was British, and young enough to know the popular dance music of his culture. When he heard the band he recognized the tune and called it by its popular name: "Autumn." On the other hand there were Americans and Canadians who heard the same music, faintly. Because they were not familiar with the British dance scene, their ears interpreted the music as something that was familiar to them, not a dance number, but a hymn that had a very similar melody.

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    3. It is often thought that this is a matter of only one man's word against a whole chorus of survivors who heard the hymn. But in reality, according to both Carlos Hurd, who first reported the hymn, and Archibald Gracie, who corresponded with survivors on the matter, there were only two women who thought they had heard the hymn. It would appear as though two women first made the claim, and then after the belief became popular, newspapers made up interviews with other survivors (or for unknown reasons, survivors created sensational, contradictory memories on the hymn), which makes it look like more people heard it than actually did.

      When the real numbers are considered, one who heard "Autumn" from up close and two who heard the "start" of the hymn from a distance, it becomes much more likely that the last piece the band played was indeed "Autumn."

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