The hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee is inexorably connected with the legend of the sinking of the Titanic. In 1912 the idea that friends or relatives had died a needless death within the comfort of uplifting music gave solace to many on land.
So much time has passed now that we can analyze and explain without encroaching on the feelings of anyone directly involved. In the end it is a beautiful thought to believe that the hymn was part of the experience. You are free to imagine a scene like the one in James Cameron’s movie Titanic: the musicians serenely taking up their instruments, playing a requiem to the dying, knowing they, themselves were about to die.
The passengers who at first thought they may have had heard the hymn ultimately came to believe they had, without a doubt, truly heard it. Nearer, My God, To Thee was part of their experience of the sinking of the great steamer, part of the tragedy of leaving loved ones behind and knowing not whether they would meet again. The reason survivors heard the hymn from their lifeboats was because at that moment they needed to hear it.
Once news of the hymn became public, Nearer, My God, To Thee became part of the healing process for other survivors and the public at large who tried to come to grips with the horrific nature of the tragedy. The public as a whole looked to the hymn as a beacon of hope in the disaster’s wake. The reason the public believed without question that the hymn had been played by the band was because after the shock of the event they needed to believe it.
The interesting thing is that the public still wants to believe that Nearer, My God, To Thee was the last piece performed by Titanic’s band. Even in today’s secular world the hymn is the favored piece.
Is public opinion the measure of truth?
A love triangle: Press, Public and Hymn.
Within a day of Carpathia’s arrival in New York two pieces were identified as having been heard in Titanic’s last moments. But only one was reported on over and over again.
Today the hymn is still news. When interviewed on January 5, 2012 by CBC radio about my Titanic Piano blog, there were several topics we discussed in the preliminary call. But once I mentioned I had a new theory on Titanic’s last number – that was the big ticket. And the interview focused on the hymn. The interview was re-broadcast at least twice across Canada and posted on the website for international listeners.
On February 10, 2012, I posted my Three Note Theory and CBC radio interviewed me once again. My theory supported Songe d’automne as the band’s final number. This interview was simply filed away and wasn’t even made available on the website.
I have never expected to get a lot of support for my new theory, but I am personally quite excited by the potential to answer, with three simple notes, so many questions that hang around the band’s final number.
On this blog I’ve posted two theories on Titanic’s last number: the first that Wallace Hartley played Nearer, My God, To Thee as a violin solo (the Hartley Solo Theory*), and the second that Songe d’automne was mistaken for the hymn in distant lifeboats (the Three Note Theory*). Which one has the most pageviews? You guessed it: the Hartley Solo Theory, by a long shot. To be honest, that’s what I expected.
To the public, nothing is ever going to change the fact that Nearer, My God, To Thee is part of Titanic’s story. Let the legend live on.
Titanic's final number: Hartley Solo Theory
Titanic's final number: Three Note Theory