Friday, 8 June 2012

Which instruments made up Titanic's bands?

Ever since I began reading about music on the Titanic I’ve been perplexed about the instrumentation. At first, like most, I assumed that both ensembles had a piano. Had they both had a piano, the trio would have been a standard piano trio:

Trio Possibility 1 PIANO TRIO
Violin
Cello
Piano

Piano trio: violin, cello and piano

Had this been the case, the five-piece would have had the two remaining violins that are listed on board, thus:

Five-piece Band Possibility 1 PIANO QUINTET
Violin
Violin
Cello
Stand-up bass
Piano

With the above configuration both ensembles would have had a balanced instrumentation, meaning a balance between instruments in the upper and lower ranges.

But upon deeper investigation I learned from the ship’s design that the trio performed in only one venue, the Reception Room adjoining the à la carte Restaurant and Cafe Parisien, and that there was no piano installed there.

So the problem is that the instrument list that has come down to us through the years is flawed, including the second pianist. Because two of the musicians were listed as having the capability to alternate between piano and cello, then the absence of a piano in the trio’s venue would seemingly flip the second pianist over to the cello. But even this doesn't solve the problem, as demonstrated by the following hypothetical instrument listings with an extra cello.

Trio Possibility 2
Violin
Cello
Cello

A trio of this make-up is unheard of, both because of the imbalance between upper and lower instruments, and because sheet music for this combination of instruments simply would not have existed (certainly not in the volume they would have needed to cover all the titles in the W. S. L. songbook). In the absence of a piano, the trio would have been a string trio, typically for two violins and cello. This has always been a very common ensemble to composers, arrangers and audiences.

Trio Possibility 3 STRING TRIO
Violin
Violin
Cello

String trio: two violins and a cello

But to correct the imbalance in the trio a violin must be borrowed from the five-piece band and substituted for the leftover cello. With this adjustment the instrumentation for the quintet is left with too many cellos:

Five-piece band Possibility 2
Violin
Cello
Cello
Stand-up bass
Piano

If the five-piece band truly was made up of this combination of instruments, it would have been a bottom-heavy ensemble with two cellos and a double bass (and remember that the piano also covered this range with the left hand playing in the bass clef). That would have left only one treble stringed instrument, a violin, to carry above, as well as the piano in that range.

Neither of the two-cello scenarios would work in a real performance situation. Music is simply not arranged for bottom-heavy ensembles with an over-balance of instruments in the low register. To say it again, the sheet music would not have existed for a small ensemble like a quintet or a trio with two cellos.

It is known for sure that the quintet consisted of a piano and four stringed instruments. Everywhere the quintet performed they had access to a piano, so their arrangements were unquestionably for this kind of instrumentation. A standard quintet configuration could look like this:

Five-piece band Possibility 3 PIANO QUINTET
Violin
Viola
Cello
Stand-up bass
Piano

Piano quintet: violin, viola (or violin 2), cello,
double bass and piano

This instrumentation is balanced, with the violin in the soprano position, viola as alto, cello as tenor, bass as bass (of course), and piano supporting all of the above. This ensemble works musically. Sheet music would certainly have been arranged for this grouping of instruments (or a similar one with two violins), and may have been copied by hand or printed and used on many liners, not just Titanic.

Even if the written arrangement was standard: violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano, it is highly unlikely a cellist would have stepped in or substituted for the viola part. The balance of sound would still have been off.

The only trouble with the trio and the five-piece band on Titanic is that the available evidence is very sparse, very obscure. However, after months of searching and pondering, evidence has come to light that may solve the problem of Titanic’s instrument imbalance. The next several posts will explore my search and thought process as I navigated survivor accounts, family statements as well as those made by Titanic’s musical directors, to the point where I feel I can accurately place all eight musicians and their instruments within the two ensembles.
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Related Posts
Titanic's instrument list as reported by the press
April 11, 1912: Day with Titanic's quintet
Titanic's second band: Trio for Restaurant and Café Parisien

3 comments:

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  2. Rebekah, I have a question. Actually, the matter of instrumentation and musicians of Titanic's orchestras isn't well known for me. I also don't know much about the orchestra in general and its customs etc. So I wonder about some thing. Wallace Hartley and John Hume played violins in quintet (at least it is said so). Wallace Hartley was a bandmaster. So wasn't he a first violin? As far as I noticed, the first violin is called Jock Hume. Who was this 'first violin', and what does it mean and what does it give to be the first violin? Does the first violin conducts the whole orchestra?

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    1. Typically the bandmaster and first violin are one in the same. In an orchestra the first violin is the concertmaster and leader of the whole section of first violins. When they have a sectional practice it is the first violin who decides on bowing etc so all the musicians look cohesive, as though all the bows are going in the same direction at the same time. The first violin directs the tuning of the orchestra. In a small ensemble typically the first violin uses body language to bring in the ensemble together (almost like conducting) when they perform.

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