Monday, 30 January 2012

Titanic's final number: Logistics, proximity and a good ear

From the moment Titanic had begun to take on water until about 2:17 a.m., the ship had been sinking steadily, but with only a slight list. It would have been possible for the band to play during those hours. The music stands would have stood erect, the cellists’ chairs would have stayed in place, the standing bandsmen would have stood without wavering, and the sheets would have stayed on the stands without slipping off.

What happened next? The band's last moments have been the subject of many discussions. When reading accounts, consider the survivor's proximity to the ship and whether their story works logistically. Oh, and consider their "ear".

So, at 2:17 wireless operator Harold Bride was washed off the ship on a collapsible lifeboat when the bow slipped beneath the waves. At that time he heard the band playing. For the next several minutes until the ship sank the angle got steeper by the second. Within three minutes the ship had completely sunk (estimated at 2:20 a.m., April 15).

The ever-increasing angle of the ship as it tipped forward would have made performance impossible in the final moments. Not even counting the human element of distraction (the realization that this was the end), consider the music stands, chairs, one’s footing, and gravity pulling the sheet music away. Whoever suggested that the waves had engulfed the musicians while they continued to play was being dramatic and had no understanding of the logistics of performance.

Survivor Caroline Brown watched the event from a lifeboat. “The band played marching from deck to deck, and as the ship went under I could still hear the music. The musicians were up to their knees in water the last time I saw them.” From her account one would believe Titanic had a brass band that continued to march until they were wading through water. However, all the musicians but the pianist played strings, and we know the cellists and double bassist weren’t marching. In my opinion, this account was a product of Brown's lively imagination.

Survivor A. H. Barkworth remained on board until the last. “I do not wish to detract from the bravery of anybody, but I might mention that when I first came on deck the band was playing a waltz. The next time I passed where the band had been stationed, the members had thrown down their instruments and were not to be seen.” Barkworth painted a more realistic picture.

The accounts of eyewitness survivors who were in lifeboats cannot be considered nearly as reliable as those who were on board. Yes, they experienced the event in person, from the vantage point of their lifeboats. But when weighing the evidence on the band's final performance, including which piece they played in the last moments, proximity to the ship matters.

A Good Ear
Not only did Harold Bride hear the band playing in Titanic's last moments, he was able to identify the music he heard, though only with the cryptic, unexplained title ‘Autumn’. This music had had such a big impact on him that he mentioned it several times while giving his oral account of the event. He kept coming back to the haunting memory of that music, it had touched him so.

Why is his account so reliable? Besides the fact that he was close enough to the ship to be a trustworthy witness, he had been born with an excellent sense of hearing. He was a wireless operator. His livelihood depended on his acute, innate auditory sense. Not only would he have employed this talent while he worked, but every life experience he had would have been imbued with a memory of what he had heard, as well as what he saw. All through the telling of his experience of the night of April 14-15 was the impression the music had made on him. Because of Bride’s reliable ear it can be believed with certainty that at the moment Titanic’s bow went under, Autumn music was in the air.

To be continued…

Friday, 27 January 2012

Titanic's final number: A century of debate

For a century it has been debated which was the last piece of music played by Titanic’s band. As soon as survivors rescued by the steamer Carpathia were able to communicate with the outside world about the event, word spread that they had heard strains of the hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee in their lifeboats from across the water. There seemed to be such a unified chorus of people swearing they had heard the hymn that it was impossible to ignore the eyewitness testimony.

The men who had not gained a space in a lifeboat, who remained on the ship until it sank and later miraculously survived, had not heard the hymn. One of the last survivors to leave the ship was Harold Bride, a wireless operator, who washed off the bow on an upturned collapsible lifeboat. As he floated away from the ship he heard the band playing a piece he called ‘Autumn’.

Even Autumn has been debated, early press reports claiming that it was a hymn (possibly influenced by the fact that Nearer, My God, To Thee was a hymn). That was, until someone pointed out that Autumn, an American hymn tune, would not have been familiar to any of the European musicians, nor to Harold Bride. 

A passenger who was on board to the last was Colonel Archibald Gracey. He said emphatically, “If, as has been reported, Nearer, My God, To Thee was one of the selections, I assuredly should have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death to us and one likely to create a panic that our special efforts were directed towards avoiding….”

Historian Walter Lord proposed that the last piece was in fact Songe d’automne (Dream of Autumn), a selection in the White Star Line songbook for which the band had music sheets. He pointed out that both British and American survivors had said they heard Nearer, My God, To Thee, but how could this be possible, when the hymn was set to different tunes on both sides of the ocean (Horbury or Propior Deo in the UK and Bethany in the US)?

Filmmakers have been divided on the tune of Nearere, My God, To Thee, as is evidenced by these prominent movies.

A Night to Remember directed by Roy Ward Baker
Based on Walter Lord’s book of the same title, Baker chose to depict the final number as Nearer, My God, To Thee set to Horbury.

Titanic (1997) directed by James Cameron
Cameron’s Titanic is the most-watched movie on the subject. He chose to set Nearer, My God, To Thee to Bethany.

It has been a century since Titanic sank and experts on this subject are still divided as to which piece truly was played as the final number. This post is part one of a series that will be dedicated to discussing the possibilities.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Sunday Night Part II How accurate are passenger accounts?

In the days following the disaster few people had a clear idea about what had happened the night Titanic sank. It is quite easy to become confused with passenger accounts and press reports. In many cases the witnesses and reporters had incomplete or inaccurate information. In the aftermath of the disaster all involved were grasping to figure out what had happened. When reading accounts it is important to see the given information within a larger context.

Some accounts of the “last piece played” may have referred to the regular Sunday evening concerts, and did not necessarily tell the tale of music played on the Titanic after she had struck ice.

Kate Buss, a Second Class passenger, wrote that a fellow passenger, Robert Norman, had requested the last number: “Mr. N.* told me on Sunday night that the last thing they played was at his request, and I hear that they were playing Nearer My God to Thee.”

The only trouble with this information was that Buss survived and Norman did not. As Buss sat safely in her lifeboat, the band played the last piece, and soon after, Norman went down with the ship and perished. The last time they had spoken was when she was still on board. If Norman had requested Nearer, My God, To Thee, when would he have had the chance to tell her about it?

It is almost certain that Buss is herself mistaken in this case. It is more likely that Norman had requested the last number of the Five-piece band in the Second Class entranceway in the evening concert (a favorite of his from the White Star Line songbook), and that he had told her about that at some point before she was lowered in the lifeboat. Later Buss heard that the “last number” (the only one talked about) was the hymn, and she mistakenly put the two together.

This is just one example of a passenger account that requires the reader to think about the information. The more Titanic accounts that are read, the more the cross-references help explain the whole story.

*The identity of Mr. N.
Several passengers had remembered him as the one who had played for the Sunday night hymn sing in Second Class. Buss: “Another acquaintance, a young fellow, so nice, Mr. N. (Edinburgh) played the piano.” Lawrence Beesley explained that the hymn sing had happened, “with the assistance at the piano of a gentleman who sat at the purser’s table opposite me (a young Scotch engineer).…”

It is known that this gentleman was Robert Douglas Norman, Second Class passenger, an engineer from Scotland. His body was recovered, #287, and rests in Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It sounds like he spent the early evening playing for the hymn sing and then later in the evening heard the Five-piece band play, and requested the last number.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Sunday Night Part I How do we interpret accounts?

When reading interpretations of Titanic survivors’ accounts one needs to sift through the information carefully. Just because a survivor mentioned a performance by the band on Sunday night, it does not necessarily mean it was at the time Titanic was sinking. Here is one example:

Violet Jessop, who was a First Class stewardess on Titanic, wrote that she had heard the band in passing on Sunday evening. “It was all so happy and peaceful. If the sun did fail to shine so brightly on the fourth day out, and if a little cold nip crept into the air as evening set in, it only served to emphasize the warmth and luxuriousness within. On that Sunday evening, the music was at its gayest, led by young Jock....”

Some have wondered how the music could have been at its ‘gayest’ on Sunday evening, assuming Jessop may have been writing about the band’s performance as the ship was sinking. However, in her memoirs she clearly organized her chapters* into two sections: Titanic, Chapter 20 - her memories of the voyage prior to the collision and the collision itself, and Chapter 21, Into the Lifeboat - her experiences as the ship was sinking.

The quotation of the lively performance was written in Chapter 20 along with her other recollections of the waning daylight hours of April 14 on board the Titanic. So to me it seems fairly clear that Jessop had heard the band perform just before dusk, perhaps between 5:00-7:00 p.m. Dusk in mid April at that latitude would have crept in at around seven o’clock, with darkness falling by about 7:15 p.m.

When Jessop’s words are considered in the context of an early evening performance there is no reason to question the liveliness of the music or mood. In fact, the scene builds up a sense of complete wellbeing, and serves as a contrast to what was about to happen. The reader feels the dramatic irony of the upbeat atmosphere. If every soul felt most fortunate to be on board the steamer built to be the epitome of human accomplishment, in just a few short hours they were about to learn the tragedy of human error and the unforgiving supremacy of nature. Such is the feeling Jessop’s words instill as she paints the picture of the band’s animated evening concert.

So, back to the matter of interpreting accounts. Keep in mind that the band (meaning both the quintet and trio) did perform on Sunday evening before the collision. It is important to consider any mention of the band in context of the timeframe of a survivor’s complete story.

Related Posts
Sunday Night Part II How accurate are passenger accounts?
Titanic's final number: Logistics, proximity and a good ear
Titanic and the Science of Memory

*Jessop’s memoirs were published in Titanic Survivor, edited by John Maxtone-Graham; published by Sheridan House, 1997.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Titanic sailed in the golden age of trained musicians

The Music Scene Then and Now.

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.

Related Posts
Did Titanic have 'palm court' performances?
Composers in Titanic's WSL songbook - Who made the list?
The art of arranging Titanic's music

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The art of arranging Titanic's music

There is an art to arranging music, and it is an interesting topic to touch on considering Titanic's repertoire was entirely arranged. Basically, music intended for one instrument or ensemble is re-written to suit the characteristics of a different instrument or ensemble. The pianist and string players on board likely did not grow up practicing much of this music.

A good portion of the songbook had originally been written for voice (the opera, sacred and popular songs). The vocal line would have been written into the first violin or piano part. It is possible that Titanic's pianist had learned to play Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9, No.2, as it is a staple in the piano repertoire, but it is unlikely any of the string players would have played this as students. And even the piano part would have been adjusted, as the music was remixed for the five instruments.

For some numbers an arranger had taken works written for larger ensembles, like Grieg's Anitra's Dance for theatre orchestra, and boiled down the elements for a piano quintet and string trio. Although the music would have been familiar to the performers in the same way it was to the public, by its nature the arranged music would have been new, as it paraphrased the originals.

My interest in Titanic has led me to arrange music from the voyage for piano. When I chose titles to arrange for my books, two levels of TITANIC A Voyage in Piano Music , I was looking for music that would translate to graded piano pieces, that would fall easily under the hands, that reflected the story of the voyage and the three classes on board, and catchy tunes. Several of my choices reflect the era’s popular music. As an arranger, I can tell you that I had to take the raw material and work it up a fair bit. The first task was to shorten the music for particular piano levels.

In The Shadows was identified as a number that was played as Titanic was sinking, and I wanted to include it in my book. To be honest, it is a bland little piece. I had to work hard to find the interest in the student part, and finally had to add parts to the teacher’s duet, like an echo, in order to create more interest. Here is my arrangement for elementary piano duet. (Admittedly, the recorded tempo is too slow.)

Songe d'automne is a beautiful waltz in a minor key. However, in the original version, at the second theme the harmonic pace loses steam despite the increase in tempo because it is written over a pedal tone (one repeated note). In my piano arrangement I rewrote that bass line for the left hand to form a kind of counter melody to the right hand, which improves the section. Listen here.

Valse Septembre has a pretty tune and I like it. Again, I played with the rhythms of the left hand part, in the first section leaving a perky little rest on beat three (rather than settling for the usual boom-chuck-chuck that is written in waltzes). In the middle section I changed the texture with legato broken chords. I also enhanced the harmonic progression to suit my ear. Listen here.

As an arranger I found it a challenge to maintain musical interest while keeping the music within an easy piano level. When I arranged music by Elgar or Berlin, two of the better writers, my job was made much easier by the high quality of the original music.

Related Posts
Composers in Titanic's WSL songbook - Who made the list?
Titanic sailed in the golden age of trained musicians
Did Titanic's bands share sheet music?

TITANIC A Voyage in Piano Music, two piano books by Rebekah Maxner
RED: Beginner to Elementary Piano solos with optional duets
GOLD: Early Intermediate to Intermediate piano solos
Notekidds YouTube channel to hear Rebekah Maxner's original and Titanic music.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The popular side of the WSL songbook.

What was listed in the White Star Line MUSIC songbook? Part IV

Titanic sailed at a time in music history when there were few clear lines defining musical taste. There was little distinction made between music composed by major composers who were highly recognized in the public ear, and those who were well-liked from a minor output of popular tunes.

In university studies the entire British “waltz king” scene has usually been skipped over entirely, the focus on France, where the Impressionists composed undoubtedly the best music of the day. So for me, becoming interested in Titanic's music has opened up a whole new oyster shell of treasure. The music is light, and has a bright, airy resemblance to Mozart's divertimenti. (Well, few can equal Mozart's sense of joie de vivre.)

The WSL songbook reflected the mixed musical taste of Titanic’s clientele and was updated frequently as arrangements of new music came available. It is unclear when the term "popular" entered the vernacular as a term to describe music, but it did not appear in the WSL songbook. Indeed, numbers that would be identified as popular today were sprinkled throughout.

Here’s what is surprising about the songbook: the category “Entr’actes, Intermezzos, etc” was so broad that it encompassed such divergent pieces as Ave Maria by Gounod, The Teddy Bear’s Picnic by Bratton, Minuet by Boccherini, Glow Worm by Lincke, Song Without Words by Tchaikovsky, and Apple Blossoms by Roberts. A real tossed salad of music, because to Titanic's audience, all music was popular. Music was music.

In the category "Marches, Cake Walks, etc." the march Mosquitos Parade by Whitney (likely performed on Sunday afternoons on park bandstands) was listed along with Pomp and Circumstance marches No. 1, 2, and 4 by Elgar (part of the symphonic concert repertoire).

Here are favorites that have appeared in Titanic music recordings. The music is quite charming:

21. The Chocolate Soldier, O. Strauss, 1954
130. Wedding Dance, Lincke, 1946
136. Sphinx, Popy, ? date
188. Love's Dream after the Ball, Czibulka, 1894

To demonstrate that the line between classical and popular was blurry if it existed at all, here is a selection from the WSL songbook by a major composer, paraphrased by a popular songwriter who was to become a music icon of the Twentieth Century. Irving Berlin borrowed Mendelssohn's Spring Song tune because he knew it would be recognized - an early version of a cover. It became one of his first big hits.

196. Spring Song, Mendelssohn,
  __  That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune, Berlin, (1910 recording by Pat Phillips; the borrowed phrase is at 0:40 in the YouTube video)
  __  That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune, Berlin, (A track on Whitcomb's Titanic album. It was not listed in the songbook, but represents music passengers would have known)

Related Posts
Titanic's WSL songbook - Intermezzos and Popular tunes
Composers in Titanic's WSL songbook - who made the list?
Sheets, hymnbook or by heart? - Nearer, My God, To Thee

Here are links to sites where you can download Titanic recordings.
I Salonisti Two albums: The Titanic Band Nice and Cheery and White Star Line Songbook
Ian Whitcomb Titanic: Music As Heard On the Fateful Voyage

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Titanic's WSL songbook - Intermezzos and Popular tunes

What was listed in the White Star Line MUSIC songbook? Part III

The word "number" as it refers to a music selection comes from books like the WSL songbook, where an ensemble's extensive repertoire was listed by number. The audience could participate in an informal performance, making requests by calling out the numbers of the music they wished to hear.

There is an older tradition in music for hymns to be numbered in hymnals and for composers to number pieces in a collection. Moreover, a composer's individual output is usually catalogued by Opus numbers. Opera (plural for opus) refers to a staged work with many numbers. But to use the word 'number' in the context, "The band played fourteen numbers last night," comes from the performance culture of request songbooks like the one used on Titanic.

When one considers how many serious classical pieces were listed in the songbook, it becomes even clearer why the band played from sheet music. It looks as though 241 out of the 341 listed numbers were classical (or written by classically trained composers), leaving about 100 selections of the "popular" variety. It is interesting that today's Titanic recordings tip the balance in favour of the popular-style music, when on the voyage in 1912, it is likely that more than half of the performances focused on the classical arrangements.

The first four pages of the WSL songbook cover opera, suites, waltzes and sacred music (stage, dance and concert works both secular and sacred) and were discussed in my last post. The remaining five pages cover two broader categories, with concert pieces that stood alone or filled in time between other larger works (Entr'acts and Intermezzos), and numbers from the Tin Pan Alley music industry, arranged from sheet music that had become popular. Here is a sampling from the WSL songbook (again, the date of death beside each composer lets us know which ones were alive in 1912):

Entr’actes, Intermezzos, etc.
175. Ave Maria, Gunod, 1893
177. Anvil Chorus from Il-Trovatore, Verdi, 1901
182. Fifth Hungarian Dance, Brahms, 1897
192. Prize Song from Die Meistersinger, Wagner, 1883
193. Serenade, Schubert, 1828
196. Spring Song, Mendelssohn, 1847
198. Traumerei, Schumann, 1856
200. Anitra's Dance, Grieg, 1907
202. Barcarolle, Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach, 1880
214. Largo, Handel, 1759
215. Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2, Chopin, 1849
219. Rakoczy, Hungarian March, Liszt, 1886
237. Humoreske, Dvorak, 1904
239. Agnus Dei, Bizet, 1875
241. None but the weary heart, Tchaikovsky, 1893
259. Melody in F, Rubenstein, 1894
260. Salut d'Amour, Elgar, 1934
262. Menuet, Boccherini, 1805

Marches, Cake Walks, etc.
280. Alexander's Ragtime Band, Berlin, 1989
300. The Ladybird's Review, Moret, 1943
310. Le prophète, Meyerbeer, 1864
311. Tannhauser, Wagner, 1883
312. Pomp and Circumstance, Elgar, 1934
339. Stars and Stripes Forever, Sousa, 1932

Related Posts
Composers in Titanic's WSL songbook - who made the list?
What was listed in the White Star Line MUSIC songbook?
The popular side of the WSL songbook

Monday, 16 January 2012

Composers in Titanic's WSL songbook - Who made the list?

What was listed in the White Star Line MUSIC songbook? Part II

The composers of the 1910s era we continue to cherish to this day, among them Debussy, Fauré, Ravel, Delius, Mahler and Elgar were not well represented in Titanic’s request list - only Elgar’s music appeared. It seems as though the society of the golden age preferred their waltz kings and old “classic” standards to the hazy harmonies of French Impressionism.

It is also possible that music agents C. W. & F. N. Black were limited by the choice of sheet music available to them in arrangements for Titanic’s ensembles. In a way, this shows which composers were in demand enough (or had been around long enough) for their music to have been arranged. Even great composers have had a difficult time breaking into the larger market while alive.

As an appendix to my last post, here is a sampling of well-known composers represented in the WSL songbook, as well as one musical example (some composers were listed more than once). Composers who have fallen into obscurity have not been listed here. The composers’ years of death give an idea as to who was still alive in 1912.

Overtures 1-15 (WSL songbook numbers)
1. Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini, 1868

Selections 16-80
17. The Night Birds, Johann Strauss, 1899
27. Samson and Delilah,, Saint-Saëns, 1921
29. Aida, Verdi, 1901
35. Orphee Aux Enfers, Offenbach, 1880
36.  Butterfly, Puccini, 1924
58. Carmen, Bizet, 1875
64. The Mikado, Sullivan, 1900
73. Tannhauser, Wagner, 1883

Suites, Fantasias, etc. 81-99
81. Casse-Noisette, Tchaikovsky, 1893
82. Peer Gynt, Grieg, 1907
85. Faust, Gunod, 1893

Waltzes 100-148 (plus additional unlisted waltzes)
115. Rosenkavalier, R Strauss, 1949
148. The Merry Widow, Lehar, 1948
J Strauss, 1899 (his unlisted waltzes were a category of their own, ex. Blue Danube, Emperor)
Waldteufel, 1915 (unlisted, ex. Ice Skater’s)

Sacred Music 149-156
149. Selections from Elijah, Mendelssohn, 1847
150. Selections from The Cross of Calvary, Gounod, 1893
152. Selections from The Messiah, Handel, 1759

Related Posts
Titanic's WSL songbook - Intermezzos and Popular tunes
The popular side of the WSL songbook
Did Titanic's band play music by memory?

Thursday, 12 January 2012

What was listed in the White Star Line MUSIC songbook? Part I

If you have ever seen a karaoke list you will be able to picture the music list in the White Star Line songbook. It was a stapled booklet, small enough to carry in your purse or pocket, with a faun-colored card stock cover and off-white inside pages. There were 9 pages of numbers listed.*

The musical selections were set by C. W. & F. N. Black, the agents who hired Titanic’s band. The agency created the list of requests, acquired the arrangements of music and likely also had the songbook printed. They chose music that was recognized and loved by the general public, again, like a karaoke list would be created today. One can see by the titles and composers represented that the public was literate in classics as well as the dance tunes that were popular in 1912.

It is interesting to note which composers made the list, and which did not (both Mozart and Beethoven were absent). The request list was divided into categories, beginning with opera. Overtures covered numbers 1 to 15, with Rossini (six numbers), Herold, Auber, Suppè (three numbers), Thomas, Flotou (?), Paer and Balfe. Today’s public audience would recognize only Rossini, but at the time these numbers were chosen because they were universal favorites.

The next category, Selections, 16-80, consisted of operatic numbers and arias. Of the famous composers who made the list, J. Strauss, Offenbach, Verdi, Wagner, Bizet and Sullivan, only two, Saint-Saëns and Puccini, were actually alive in 1912, with most of their productive years behind them. The rest of the listed composers (who may have been alive at the time) have faded to no more than printed names in books like these. Their music is no longer widely known. This follows throughout the rest of the songbook.

In all there were seven categories, some with appended sub-categories:
1. Overtures (1 - 15)

2. Selections (16 - 80)

3. Suites, Fantasias, etc. (81 - 99)
National Anthems, Hymns &c., of all Nations (unlisted numbers)

4. Waltzes (100 - 148)
Gung'l Waltzes (unlisted numbers)
Strauss Waltzes ( " " )
Waldteufel Waltzes ( " " )

5. Sacred Music (149 - 156)

6. Entr’actes, Intermezzos, etc. (157 - 279)

7. Marches, Cake Walks, etc.
Waldteufel Polkas (unlisted numbers)

It would have been possible for the band to have accepted a request like "262" Boccherini’s Menuet, followed by "280" Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band, then a selection like (for example) Comfort ye my people from "152" Handel’s Messiah, followed by "334" Sousa’s Hail, Spirit of Liberty, and so on. Musically speaking, the list shows that the public was knowledgeable across the genres and had eclectic musical taste.

Related Posts
Composers in Titanic's WSL songbook - who made the list?
Titanic's WSL songbook - Intermezzos and Popular tunes
The popular side of the WSL songbook

*The replica songbook I obtained from the Titanic Historical Society in Indian Orchard, MA, is believed to have been the one in use at the time Titanic sailed.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Was Titanic's last performance impacted by separate libraries?

Did Titanic’s two bands have separate libraries? Part III

The Final Performance
With separate libraries, how could Titanic’s two bands have performed together on the night of the sinking? The story has always been told that the two bands came together to perform for passengers on the night the Titanic sank. From a musical point of view there is no reason to question this.

Both bands would have been familiar with music from the same request list. In their final performance it is unknown whether they each played from their own part (amalgamating the trio and quintet arrangements for each number), or whether the trio looked on with the quintet’s arrangements (the more likely scenario).

In orchestras it is standard for two instruments to read from the same desk (i.e. music stand). It is possible that Titanic’s musicians shared parts on the night of the sinking, violin reading with violin, cello reading with cello. It was their professional talent to perform the music at sight.

If it ever was proven beyond a doubt that both ensembles had different playlists, it still would not preclude the possibility that the eight musicians performed together on the night the Titanic sank. If they played side by side on that night, the musicians with like instruments most certainly could have shared their sheet music. The fact that the two ensembles had separate libraries would not have stopped them from playing together.

Related Posts
Sheets, hymnbook or by heart? - Nearer, My God, To Thee
Did Titanic's bands play two different repertoires?
Titanic's final number: Three Note Theory

Monday, 9 January 2012

Did Titanic's bands play two different repertoires?

Did Titanic’s two bands have separate libraries? Part II

The matter of “separate libraries” has puzzled historians for quite a while, because it was wondered whether this meant the two bands also played different pieces. The question was asked that if the bands both played different titles then how would all eight have been able to perform together as the ship was sinking? My theory is that both bands would have played from the same list of titles, even with separate libraries.

The Matter of Requests
First and Second Class passengers received the "White Star Line MUSIC" songbook upon embarkation, which listed the music that could be played upon request. In First Class the quintet played in two venues: at the top of the famous grand staircase and in the Reception Room outside the First Class Dining Saloon. The trio played in the First Class Reception Room adjoining the à la carte Restaurant and Cafe Parisien.

It would have been terribly confusing to the First Class passengers if they were able to make requests of the quintet but not the trio. Passengers waiting for a table at the restaurant would have enjoyed the same privilege of asking for favorites of the trio as in the other parts of the ship when they listened to the quintet. Passengers would have used the same booklet for the entire voyage.

Back to the question of separate libraries: beyond the musical considerations mentioned in the last post, or the matter of requests, imagine how inconvenient it would have been to share the same "library." As the ensembles often performed simultaneously, both needed immediate access to the music on the request list.

So, yes, the quintet and trio had separate libraries, but no, would not have had different playlists. Both would have been required and able to play music from the "White Star Line MUSIC" songbook upon request.

Related Posts
Did Titanic's band play music by memory?
Did Titanic's bands share sheet music?
What was listed in the White Star Line MUSIC songbook? Part I

Sunday, 8 January 2012

CBC Radio Titanic Interview with Rebekah Maxner

It has been an exciting week! While having a new blog is pretty exciting in itself, beyond that I've had an article published in an international piano magazine and a radio interview that went national - all in one week! And to top it off, I'm January's feature composer in a 2012 calendar of Canadian composers.

CBC Mainstreet called for an interview on Thursday, January 5. It aired on CBC Radio One at 5:15 p.m. during supper rush hour. Many of the questions focused on the last piece the band played on the night Titanic sank. Listen to the full interview here:

And my Nearer My God To Thee elementary piano duet:

Clavier Companion published my article titled The story of music on board the RMS TITANIC. Several wonderful books have been published recently which discuss the identity of Titanic's musicians. In my article you can look inside the ship and read the story of music from the passengers' point of view, learn where and when the bands performed, and experience first-hand accounts of the band's final performance. Click here to read the full article.

In the Clavier Companion article you can see images of:
Olympic's pianos, which give an idea of what pianos looked like on the Titanic:
First Class Reception Room piano.
First Class Entrance Hall piano (top of the Grand Staircase)
Second Class Entrance, C Deck piano
First Class Dining Saloon piano
Restaurant Reception Room, B Deck, where the trio played.


Related Posts
Titanic's first class pianos
Titanic’s final number: Hartley's violin
Titanic's final number: Concise summary

Friday, 6 January 2012

Did Titanic's bands share sheet music?

It has been said that Titanic's five-piece band and trio had separate libraries of music. There has always been confusion as to what "separate libraries" could mean. Did this mean the bands played from two different lists of music (different titles)? And if so, how could they have performed together on the night of the sinking? This will be answered in three parts.

Yes, it can be believed that the five-piece band and the trio played from separate libraries. The differences in their instrumentation meant they needed separate libraries of music.

This discussion begins with an understanding of music arrangements. The quintet consisted of a piano and four stringed instruments. Everywhere the quintet performed they had access to a piano, so their printed arrangements were unquestionably for this kind of instrumentation.

Cabinet for sheet music storage, in the venue where the five-piece band performed.
Taken aboard Olympic

There was no piano installed in the trio’s performance venue, the reception room outside the à la carte Restaurant and Cafe Parisien. In the absence of a piano this small ensemble would have been a string trio. The standard trio without piano has two violins and a cello.

Structurally, the person who arranged the music for each ensemble would have adjusted the musical elements specifically for each grouping of instruments. A complete music score for the quintet would have had six staves (counting two for the piano), and would have looked something like this on paper:

Violin (treble staff)
Viola or Second Violin (alto or treble staff, respectively)
Cello (bass staff, occasionally alto or treble in the upper registers)
Double bass (bass staff, sounds an octave lower than written)
Piano (grand staff, treble and bass clefs)

For the string trio there would have been three staves, and music would have looked like this in complete score:

Violin (treble staff)
Violin (treble staff)
Cello (bass staff, occasionally alto or treble in the upper ranges)

It is unlikely the musicians on the Titanic had complete scores as outlined above, so I use them simply to illustrate the construction of the music. The libraries on the Titanic likely contained only the parts, one instrument per sheet.

Technically, the trio could have tried to play the sheets intended for the quintet, but the sound would have been missing entire lines of music, entire parts of harmony or bass. For example, if an arrangement ever contained a section where the piano played alone, the trio would have had an extended silence in the music. Likewise, the all-important bass line, which is customarily played by the double bass, would have been missing had the trio played the quintet's music.

So, yes, both ensembles would have had access to their own stash of sheet music, separate libraries if you will. The number and nature of instruments present made it necessary to provide each band with customized non-exchangeable print arrangements.

Related Posts
What is a 'palm court' musician?
Where did Titanic's band play during the sinking?
Did Titanic's band play music by memory?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Did Titanic's band play music by memory?

It has been said that the musicians on board Titanic memorized and played by heart a large body of musical numbers listed in the White Star Line music repertoire book. How true is this?

Since the advent of three-chord popular music, chord charts and the recording industry, audiences have become accustomed to groups of musicians performing from memory, without music sheets. Because the majority of the focus has fallen on the popular music played on Titanic, it has become the assumption that the bands who performed mid-ocean played, like popular music stars, completely from memory.

In the classical world the only professional musicians who usually memorize are concert soloists. For example, in a performance of a piano concerto (a piece for piano and orchestra), only the soloist would play from memory. The rest of the orchestra, and the conductor, would rely on print music. Titanic's musicians were trained in the classical tradition and all of them read music. In fact, when passenger accounts are consulted, many more survivors recounted hearing the bands play classical numbers than popular. Incidentally, there were only a handful of popular tunes listed in the White Star Line songbook.

Ensemble musicians, like those on Titanic, normally play with written parts. When music is arranged for five musicians the parts are at times melodious, at times form a counterpoint, but most of the time the parts collectively play the harmony, the accompaniment, fill a perfunctory role. It is highly unusual, nearly unheard of, for classically trained musicians to put time into memorizing the boring parts.

Detail showing music stand and piano. First Class Entrance Hall, Olympic.
The music stand is reflecting the light of the window at centre. 

Some ensemble musicians can play from memory and improvise by ear, but it is not a universal talent for classical musicians to be able to do so. Most play with print music. It takes a lot of practice and trust within an ensemble to reach the point of playing together by memory or by ear.

Recently I have attended several concerts in which small ensembles performed the entire night memorized. These ensembles had written and arranged their own music and spent their professional careers together (over several decades) touring several continents. They had had time to gel as a musical unit. Their current "memorized" repertoire made up about only two hours' worth of music.

At one of the concerts one of the regular ensemble musicians was taking a break from touring and there was a substitute performer in his place. In one piece he had a memory lapse and had to try to get back into the piece. Meanwhile the rest of the performers had to struggle on without hearing his part in the mix, trying to hold the music together. It turned out he was unable to rejoin the music, and his block, which lasted five minutes or more, went right to the end of the piece. It should be mentioned that the concert was $50 a seat, and that it was high-level music, similar to the Classical titles played on Titanic.

Titanic's musicians would have had much less preparation or rehearsal than that substitute musician did.

Some may argue that Titanic was a rare exception. The ship was built to impress, the bandsmen hired to impress. Surely the Titanic was the exception to the rule. But Titanic's bandsmen were, nonetheless, a product of their time. In 1912 classical ensemble musicians played with parts.

Detail showing music stand and piano. Second Class Entrance Foyer, Olympic.
In second class the musicians used standard folding conservatory stands. 

In the situation of the Titanic there was no time to memorize. Titanic’s band members came together within days of departure and had very little time (if any) for rehearsal during the trip itself. Whoever it was who claimed Titanic’s band played from memory was suggesting they played about six hours a day, for five straight days, from memory. It would be a stretch for a solo lounge pianist to accomplish that. But it would be nearly impossible for a brand new ensemble to pull it off, especially since three of Titanic’s band members were first timers on the open sea.

The talent of a palm court musician was to be able to read at sight, able to give a convincing performance with very little rehearsal. Their performances depended on arranged print music.

Detail of music stands and piano, First Class Reception Room, Olympic

It is possible that the myth that Titanic's musicians memorized the entire request list originated with the White Star Line MUSIC songbook itself. The term "songbook" does not appear on its cover, but it has always been commonly referred to as such by historians. By this name one might think that the songbook is just that - a songbook, with printed words of the songs, or maybe even printed music. A more accurate name for it might have been the "White Star Line MUSIC Request Book." It was a 9-page booklet no bigger than your hand, that listed only the titles of the pieces that could be requested of the band. It is possible that historians looked at the songbook and assumed that in the absence of printed music, the musicians must have played from memory.

But it was the passengers who carried the songbook, not the musicians, and during a performance passengers would have looked through the numbers (or titles) to request music they recognized. The musicians had sheet music for all the numbers in the songbook (about 341 listed, as well as many titles that were not listed, perhaps as many as 500 arrangements in total). In fact, the main reason the music was numbered was because the musicians' parts were numbered for quick location. Someone would call out a number, all the musicians would find their numbered sheet for that title, and then perform it, reading the music at sight.

Photographs taken on board Titanic's sister ship, Olympic, show evidence of music stands in all three of the five-piece band's performance venues (photos included throughout this post). The presence of music stands offers physical proof that sheet music was in standard use on board White Star Line ships. Also, in the First Class Reception Room there was a gorgeous veneer cabinet alongside the piano for sheet music storage. If the musicians had been performing from memory there would have been no use for such a cabinet, and it would never have been provided at great expense.

Cabinet for sheet music storage beneath windows, taken aboard Olympic.

So, did Titanic's musicians play from memory? No. Memorizing takes a lot of time, and musicians don't get paid for the time they spend practicing, they get paid for performing. Had the White Star Line expected Titanic's musicians to play from memory, the cost to hire them would have been astronomical. Playing from sheets with accuracy and musicianship is the most efficient way for musicians to make a living, and the only way for a company to afford to hire them. The idea was to pay a low wage, and for the bandsmen to play for tips. The sheet music arrangements made that financial arrangement possible.

Related Posts
Titanic: What is a 'palm court' musician?
Sheets, hymnbook or by heart? - Nearer, My God, To Thee
Did Titanic's bands share sheet music?

Entrance and Reception Room Images from TITANIC The Ship Magnificent, Beveridge, Klistorner, Hall, Andrews. All rights reserved. Many thanks to the authors for permission. Limited Edition here shown (two volumes).

Monday, 2 January 2012

Did Titanic have 'palm court' performances?

In my last post I described the advent of palm court performances. A small ensemble performed out of the audience's sight, behind potted palm plants, to provide background music in a social or restaurant setting. The music was part of the scenery, not the focal point of the outing. The public had the freedom to move about the room, to sit facing one another at tables and to carry on light social conversation.

Contrast the palm court atmosphere with that of a formal concert, where the musicians have traditionally sat front and centre. In this setting the musicians have typically always been set up on a stage or raised platform to make them more visible, and the audience has sat in rows arranged to face the music. It is usually considered to be disruptive for the audience to move about or enter or exit the room during the performance, or to talk, cough, or take a painfully long time to open crinkly candy wrappers. In formal concerts the audience is expected to be as still and quiet as possible, and to sometimes clap politely, but only at the right times.

When designer Thomas Andrews planned the performance venues on Titanic he envisioned a hybrid kind of concert, a cross between 'palm court' where the music would remain in the background, and 'formal recital' where the band would play to an attentive audience.

Naturally, some aspects of palm court culture carried into Titanic's design. The five-piece band's main First Class venue was the Reception Room outside the Dining Saloon. The room's overall atmosphere resembled a palm court setting, as the passengers sat in social groupings around small tables. Potted palm plants towered next to the room's pillars. Colonel Archibald Gracie even called it the Palm Room, saying he adjourned there "...with many others, for the usual coffee at individual tables where we listened to the always delightful music of the Titanic's band."

First Class Reception Room, taken on board Olympic.

Photographs of Titanic's sister ship, Olympic, show that the pianos held commanding positions in each room. There is no evidence that palm leaves hid the musicians. So, even though the band played to a socializing audience, the fact that the musicians were in full view turned each performance into a quasi-concert.

Steinway grand, First Class Reception Room,
photo taken early in Olympic's career.

Passengers described an attentive audience. But in true palm court style, it was perfectly acceptable to carry on quiet conversation or move about the room during a performance. First Class passenger Helen Churchill Candee described the scene, making note of conversations that took place while the band performed: "...after dinner there was coffee served to all at little tables around the great general lounging place, for here the orchestra played.

"Some said it was poor on its Wagner work, others said the violin was weak. But that was for conversation's sake, for nothing on board was more popular than the orchestra. You could see that by the way everyone refused to leave it. And everyone asked of it some favorite hit."

Related Posts
What is a 'palm court' musician?
Did Titanic's band play music by memory?
Titanic's First Class pianos