Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Carlos Hurd: Nearer, My God, To Thee

It has been suggested that it would be interesting to discuss Titanic's passenger accounts and compare and contrast those who went down with the ship (and survived) with those who witnessed the event from lifeboats.

Two reports in particular launched what would become the great mystery of Titanic’s final number.

The first was Carlos Hurd’s report that passengers had heard Nearer, My God, To Thee from their lifeboats. His story was the earliest to break that news, and was printed in the New York World, evening edition, on April 18, 1912, the very night Carpathia arrived in New York with Titanic’s survivors. Hurd was a reporter who had been on board Carpathia as a passenger when the ship answered the distress call from Titanic and rushed to her aid. For several days, as Carpathia steamed back to New York, he collected first hand accounts from Titanic’s survivors.

Evening Post April 18, 1912, Extra edition
Band Played “Nearer, My God, To Thee” As the Mammoth Vessel Sank Beneath the Waves

…The ship’s string band gathered in the saloon, near the end, and played “Nearer My God to Thee.”

The following day, on Friday, April 19, 1912, a more complete story ran:
"As the screams in the water multiplied, another sound was heard, strong and clear at first, then fainter in the distance. It was the melody of the hymn, ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee,’ played by the string orchestra in the dining saloon. Some of those on the water started to sing the words but grew silent as they realized that for the men who played, the music was a sacrament soon to be consumed by death. The serene strains of the hymn and the frantic cries of the dying blended in a symphony of sorrow."

Front page of St. Louis Post-Dispach
featuring a story by Carlos Hurd
But on April 20 Hurd was quoted in the Leeds Mercury with his own opinion concerning this story.
"To relate that as the last boats moved away the ship’s string band gathered in the saloon and played ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’ sounds like an attempt to give added colour to a scene which was in itself the climax of solemnity, but various passengers and survivors of the crew agree in declaring they heard this music."

Two decades after Titanic sank, Hurd again questioned the hymn. It seemed unlikely to him that survivors had been able to hear the music above the “distracting noises”:
"The endeavor to fit such a story together showed how fragmentary was the knowledge of individuals. One would mention an incident which could be confirmed and completed only by another….An instance of this difficulty was…the playing of the hymn music by the English musicians in the sinking ship’s orchestra. Several persons told of having heard this music from their boats, but, because of distracting noises, they could not be sure what the melody was. Two women, who professed familiarity with sacred music, said it was “Nearer, My God, To Thee.” The statement appeared in my report and gained general currency."

My Three Note Theory proposes that Autumn’s first three notes, which are identical to the opening of Nearer, My God, To Thee, were heard across the water, and that the melody was played by the cello, which had the dynamic capability to project with clarity:
"… another sound was heard, strong and clear at first…" (Hurd)

Then as the music moved through the phrase, softening (musicians are taught to play with a diminuendo, meaning gradually softer, with a descending line of pitches), and diverged to a tune which was increasingly different from Nearer, My God, To Thee:
"…then fainter in the distance." (Hurd)

Several reports have said there was singing. It could be a historic fact that people began to sing the most familiar verse of Nearer, My God, To Thee, with the belief that they were joining in with the band after hearing the opening notes. While the survivors sang in the distant boats, their voices would have blocked the faint strains of Songe d’automne.
"... Some of those on the water started to sing the words but grew silent as they realized that for the men who played, the music was a sacrament soon to be consumed by death." (Hurd)

The cries in the water gradually covered the music of the waltz and created a veil of “distracting noises”, which hid Songe d’automne’s melody.
"The serene strains of the hymn and the frantic cries of the dying blended in a symphony of sorrow." (Hurd)
"Several persons told of having heard this music from their boats, but, because of distracting noises, they could not be sure what the melody was." (Hurd)

After several days on the ocean, steaming back to New York with 712 survivors, and collecting their accounts, Hurd’s report on the hymn originated with two positive identifications of the final tune the band played.
"Two women, who professed familiarity with sacred music, said it was 'Nearer, My God, To Thee.'" (Hurd)

It might seem as though I had based my Three Note Theory on Hurd’s April 19 report, but the truth is that the idea came to me in the middle of writing "The story of music on board the RMS TITANIC, an article I wrote for Clavier Companion magazine. Only later did I realize the similarities between my theory and Hurd’s report. When re-read in the context of a performance of Songe d’automne, it actually makes a lot of sense.

Hurd was the first one who spoke with survivors in person, the first one who heard their memories. And it was Hurd who realized just how uncertain the survivors were, themselves, with the precise details of what they had experienced. It was he who understood how much uncertainty there was about Nearer, My God, To Thee.

Related Posts
*Titanic's Final Number: Three Note Theory
CBC Radio Titanic Interview with Rebekah Maxner (to view the online version of the magazine article "The story of music on board the RMS TITANIC" simply click the image)

New York World April 18, 1912, evening edition

Friday, 24 February 2012

Titanic, 9/11 and the Science of Memory

How reliable is eyewitness memory? Can it be assumed that everything an eyewitness remembers about an event is true to a letter simply because they were there? What about details that don’t match up between accounts when compared side-by-side?

Because the current topic on Titanic Piano has been the music played on board Titanic, most recently focusing on the last number played by Titanic’s band, the question of survivor memory has surfaced. How is it possible that survivors recalled two different pieces of (similar*) music as the final number?

In the instance of the sinking of the Titanic, survivors were touched by the music they heard, however clearly or faintly, performed by the band. How reliable were their memories and were they susceptible to alteration? Or could the memories of one person have influenced the memories of another?

A google search on the science of memory brings up an article called "How Our Brains Make Memories" featuring the work of Karim Nader, an expert on the malleability of memory.

A comparable event to the sinking of Titanic was the September 11, 2001 attack on the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. It was a tragedy that riveted the world’s attention and was covered extensively by the media. It was also an event that eyewitnesses were called on to describe in detail. Nader, himself, witnessed the twin towers burn and fall from a rooftop less than two miles away. Yet, he hesitates to trust his own memories of the event.

Here is an example of how his own memory fooled him: Nader was sure that on September 11 he had watched TV footage of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. It was part of what he definitely remembered experiencing that day. However, he was surprised to find out years later that that particular footage was first aired the day after, on September 12. A small error of memory, yet it demonstrated to him that his eyewitness experience of 9/11 had changed. And he wasn’t the only one who had mixed this memory in with the day of the tragedy.

Nader has developed a new theory on the life cycle of memory. He proposes that a memory is initially made and stored in the brain, but then each time it is opened up and talked about, it is then re-stored in the brain anew, as though remembered for the first time.

“Television and other media coverage reinforce the central facts. But recalling the experience to other people may allow distortions to creep in. “When you retell it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory,” Hardt [a postdoctoral researcher in Nader’s lab] says. In the days following September 11, for example, people likely repeatedly rehashed their own personal stories—“where were you when you heard the news?”—in conversations with friends and family, perhaps allowing details of other people’s stories to mix with their own.”

This was precisely the scene on the Carpathia, the ship that carried Titanic’s survivors to New York, where survivors discussed the event together and tried to understand what had happened. Nader’s theory on memory would suggest that each time the survivors recalled and retold their stories to one another, their brains were at work recoding those memories, possibly with slight adjustments.

With events like the sinking of the Titanic, people retold their stories over and over within days, months, years and decades of the tragedy. How many times would their minds have been called upon to remember and re-store their memories? How many opportunities were there for their memories to encode slight changes? Without them even knowing it was happening?

My next several posts are going to turn to survivor memories of the sinking, with a special focus on the final piece played. Is it possible that Nader’s theory on memory could help explain variances and similarities in Titanic’s survivor accounts?

Related Posts
*Titanic's final number: Three Note Theory
Titanic's final number: The healing power of music

Nader's theory on How Our Brains Make Memories

Monday, 20 February 2012

Titanic's Nearer, My God, To Thee: Healing music

Healing power of music
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.

Related Posts
Titanic's final number: Hartley Solo Theory
Titanic's final number: Three Note Theory

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.

Related Posts
Titanic's final number: Grand Acoustics
Titanic's final number: Three Note Theory
Titanic's quintet: Who was the cellist?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Titanic's final number: Grand Staircase Acoustics

For a moment let us dwell on this question: how clearly would those in Titanic’s lifeboats have heard the band's music?

Most movies depict the band performing on the outer deck. Within that scenario it is easy to believe the music was heard in full phrases and melodies from the lifeboats. But for several reasons, which shall be discussed in future posts, it is most likely that the band performed inside at the top of the Grand Staircase throughout the sinking. With the band performing inside the ship it is unlikely people in lifeboats heard any of the music clearly.

I am no expert on acoustics, but I am aware of the fact that a room or enclosed space can act like a resonant body to pick up the vibrations of music and act to project the sounds. The cavity of the Grand Staircase could have worked like the body of a guitar or a drum to slightly magnify the band’s music.

Even the ornate dome above the Grand Staircase had an inner and outer layer, the inner concave design visible from within the ship, the outer weather-protective construction resembling the windows of a greenhouse. It is this kind of double layer that enhances sound. For this reason I do believe the survivors heard wafts of music on the air amongst other sounds, even if the outer deck doors to the Grand Staircase were closed.

This quote caught my attention. Margaret Brown said of her experience in lifeboat No. 6: “All the time while rowing we were facing the starboard side of the sinking vessel. By that time E & C decks were completely submerged, and the strains of music became fainter, as though the instruments were filling up with water….”

The first time I read this I dismissed Brown’s description because I felt it was unlikely the musicians played until water had filled their instruments. But after some thought I have come to believe Brown was attempting to describe something else here, and it may have been the acoustical properties of Titanic's Grand Staircase as a performance room. As the ship filled with water, the Grand Staircase along with it, the resonant area would have been steadily shrinking. Therefore, the strength of the sound emitted from the room would have become weaker, and even the sound quality would have changed as the water rose to the top. The music would literally have sounded like it was “filling with water.”

Hearing wafts of music is not the same as hearing real music. The band’s tunes heard from a distance in Titanic’s lifeboats would have been at a constant, almost imperceptible muffled volume when the deck doors were closed. Across the water listeners would have known the musicians were playing, but would have been unable to identify the music.

Then, the music would have sounded slightly louder at unpredictable and intermittent intervals when the deck doors of the Grand Staircase were opened. In these moments several beats of music would have reached out across the water with greater clarity, but again, it is unlikely from these excerpts that the survivors would have been able to identify the music. And all the while there was the general din of hurried activity on the ship.

As Titanic’s final plunge drew near, the sounds of people on the ship and in the water formed a gradual crescendo, and it was around this time when the hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee, was supposedly heard. However, I am unwilling to suggest the survivors in lifeboats did not hear music at all. I believe they heard the sounds of music in general and then something for a moment that reminded them of the hymn, and that something was the opening phrase of Songe d'automne.*

Related Posts
*Titanic's final number: Three Note Theory
Carpathia Accounts: Nearer, My God, To Thee Evidence that Titanic's bands played separately

Friday, 10 February 2012

Titanic's final number: Three Note Theory

After a century, is it possible to discover anything new about the final piece that was played by Titanic’s band? The unanswered question of the last piece is well documented. Most people who know the story of the Titanic are aware that experts cannot agree on whether it was Nearer, My God, To Thee or the mysterious ‘Autumn’.

Based on the title alone, Walter Lord (author of A Night to Remember) first speculated that Harold Bride’s ‘Autumn’ was a hymn with a tune of that name, based on information from an article published in the New York Times. Fred Vallance, who had been a bandleader on Laconia in 1912, later pointed out to Lord that ‘Autumn’ (as Bride had called it) had been a popular waltz in Britain at the time and  that musicians had agreed that Bride had been referring to a number called Songe d’automne.

Songe d’automne, original key:

Lord’s Songe d’automne theory gained support from some Titanic historians, but others have remained loyal to (or returned to) the idea that Nearer, My God, To Thee was the final performance. Several survivors had claimed they heard the hymn, and it was given so much press that the idea stuck.

Nearer, My God, To Thee, original key:

But what did the survivors who heard music from their lifeboats really hear? The sea was silent, glassy and flat, though towards the end there would have been extraneous noises associated with putting off the collapsible lifeboats. Even so, some of the lifeboat's passengers said they heard something familiar.

Three Note Theory
I would like to propose a new theory of what was played and heard that night. I believe I can provide musical evidence that the final number played by the band was indeed Songe d’automne, but that the survivors at a distance who heard the popular waltz thought they heard Nearer, My God, To Thee.

Let me walk my readers through my analysis so musicians and non-musicians alike can all understand how Songe d'automne could be mistaken for the hymn. For the sake of this analysis I am going to compare the melodies of the two pieces of music in a way that they begin on the same pitch (note).

My theory can all be boiled down to three notes. Sing this tune. (Please turn down your volume to play the clips.)

Now sing it with the opening notes of Songe d’automne.

Now sing it with the opening notes of Nearer, My God, To Thee, set to Bethany.

You should hear that both pieces begin with the same tune.

Harold Bride wasn’t the only one with good ears the night Titanic sank. Sitting silently on the calm water were several hundred passengers in lifeboats. Those who were the greatest distance away from Titanic heard nothing from the ship. But those in lifeboats that were still relatively close would have heard the commotion on Titanic as men attempted to cut away the last collapsible lifeboats, and perhaps faint strains from the band, which was still playing inside the ship.

The opening melody of Songe d’automne begins with a gripping tune that cries out then wilts downward with a melancholic turn. This phrase of music – especially the first three notes – would have cut through the noise of Titanic's final moments and reached the survivors in lifeboats, who had nothing to do but wait and listen. After the first several notes the rest would have faded a bit as the musicians played softer to the end of the descending phrase. But at least two from the ocean-bound audience caught enough to hear a tune that spoke to their hearts.

Heard from a distance, the music of Songe d'automne sounded so similar in melody and rhythm to Nearer, My God, To Thee that for a moment these survivors sitting in the lifeboats thought they heard the hymn.

After those first three notes a few may have even picked up the tune and begun to sing. Several survivor accounts mention that people were heard singing Nearer, My God, To Thee. Some thought they heard the singing from the ship, but it is more likely that they heard survivors in other lifeboats carrying the tune.

“As the screams in the water multiplied, another sound was heard, strong and clear at first, then fainter in the distance. It was the melody of the hymn ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee,’ played by the string orchestra…. Some of those on the water started to sing the words….” (As reported by Carlos Hurd, Evening World, April 19, 1912.)

To analyze the opening measures of Songe d’Automne, and compare them to the opening measures of Nearer, My God, To Thee (Bethany setting), one can see how similar the two melodies are.

*The curved line is a tie which indicates that the two connected notes are sustained in one continuous sound.

Allow me to get a little technical now and describe my theory in musical terminology. The first three notes of both melodies form a descending line of intervals comprised of a major second followed by another major second. It matters not that Songe d’automne is in a minor key and Nearer, My God, To Thee is in a major key. The opening intervals of both melodies are identical. Beyond the first three notes, the phrases of both melodies continue on to follow a similar melodic contour.

Also, the rhythm bears an uncanny similarity. While not identical, both follow a pattern of a sustained long note followed by two quarter notes (crotchets).

What could this cross-reference mean?
Beyond the anecdotal evidence from Bride or other survivors, this music analysis provides a fascinating cross-reference between the melodies in question.

This theory could reconcile why two different numbers were identified as the last piece. From a distance, the lifeboat survivors heard music that sounded like the opening of Nearer, My God, To Thee. The music then faded from the opening, or was covered by singing and other sounds associated with the sinking. Heard on the ship, the music continued from the opening and Harold Bride heard the band's last piece, Autumn. By extension this theory could also explain why those in lifeboats insisted they had heard the hymn, and those on the ship insisted they had not.

This theory could answer the question of which version of the hymn was heard. The setting of Nearer, My God, To Thee that most closely resembles Songe d’automne is Bethany.

This theory could also confirm what Harold Bride meant by Autumn. If the tune that was actually performed by the band sounded like Nearer, My God, To Thee from a distance, then the music must have carried a striking similarity to the hymn. Songe d’automne fits that description perfectly.

The analysis of the music itself lends credibility to all the passenger accounts. No longer should the focus be on two opposing ideas, one that Autumn was the final piece, and the other that the hymn was the final piece. With the Three Note Theory, it is understood that from one single performance, both pieces of music were heard and experienced by those who lived or died the night Titanic sank.

Related Posts
Titanic's final number: Cello penetrates other sounds
Titanic's final number: A century of debate
Harold Bride New York Times: 'Autumn'

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Titanic's final number: Paddy Dillon's testimony

The Hartley Solo Theory* is an interesting one. Perhaps there is additional evidence somewhere to support it, another survivor on board who witnessed the performance up close. Is it wise to base a theory on just one witness? Once again this theory falls into question, this time based on Thomas Patrick (Paddy) Dillon’s own eyewitness account.

Dillon’s story was printed in the local paper in Plymouth, England, on April 28. According to Dillon, the forward part of Titanic broke off like a piece of carrot. From the poop he saw the musicians swept off the deck into the water.

“There was one musician left. He was the violinist and was playing the air [solo] of the hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee. The notes of this music were the last thing I heard before I went off the poop and felt myself going headlong into the icy water with the engines and machinery buzzing in my ears.”

Dillon would not have had a view of Titanic's First Class performance venue from where he stood on the poop deck in Third Class. For Dillon’s account to be true, the solo violinist would have needed to find a way to perform on the aft part of the ship, which was at that point severed and teetering on the verge of going down.

And why not? Hartley could have been one of the people who ascended Titanic's sloping deck, looking for refuge at the rising stern. He could have found a safe spot to perform the hymn, perhaps leaning against something as the ship tipped forward.

But Dillon's story as told by the local newspaper in Plymouth was not the story he told on Day 5 of the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry.

3870. (Mr. Raymond Asquith.) Then you say the ship plunged and righted herself again; and was it then that you dived into the water?

- I did not dive into the water.

3871. How did you get off the ship into the water?

- I went down with the ship, and shoved myself away from her into the water.

Are we to believe it was that moment (when the ship was already submerged) when Dillon heard Nearer, My God, To Thee performed by Titanic's last standing musician? The paper did quote him as saying, “The notes of this music were the last thing I heard before I went off the poop….”

Oh, there is also the matter of the engines and machinery buzzing in his ears – if the engines had been stopped around the time Titanic struck ice, would they have still been making noise as the last piece of the ship sank? Or making noise from the submerged vessel as he shoved himself away?

The only thing similar between his two accounts was that he was one of the last to leave the ship and that he entered the water. Everything else about his two stories is completely different: how far in the air the stern was when he left it and whether he jumped or pushed off the ship. The reason this matters in light of the Hartley Solo Theory is that conditions on the ship needed to be favourable in order for there to have been a performance at the time he left it. Either way, on the remaining piece of sloping deck or on a submerged ship, it is a stretch to imagine that music was heard as the stern sank beneath the Atlantic waters.

It seems as though Dillon was either a very inventive storyteller, or he was the victim of a creative reporter. In any case, because he changed the context of how he left the ship, it comes into question where, when and if he heard the hymn performed by a solo violinist. It would be interesting for someone to ask a violinist to perform a hymn on an increasingly tipping sloping surface and see if it is possible. It is a romantic thought at best, and one that appealed to readers in 1912.

The majority of the survivors who had heard Nearer, My God, To Thee were those who listened from their lifeboats. On the night of Titanic’s sinking, what did they really hear?

Related Posts
*Titanic's final number: Hartley Solo Theory
Titanic, 9/11 and the Science of Memory
Carpathia accounts: Nearer, My God, To Thee

Monday, 6 February 2012

Titanic’s final number: Hartley's violin

With only moments to spare did Wallace Hartley have time to play a solo of Nearer, My God, To Thee? Keep in mind that at around 2:17 a.m. Harold Bride, Marconi operator, washed free of Titanic on a collapsible lifeboat. At the time he heard strains of a piece of music (that was not a hymn) from the band that was still playing. Titanic was about to sink at 2:20 a.m.

New evidence may have surfaced to help answer this question. At this time there is a violin being verified that may be the one Wallace Hartley played on the Titanic. His body was recovered with his music case attached, but mysteriously the violin had never been returned to his family. Hartley’s instrument had been an engagement gift from his fiancĂ©, Maria Robinson, and there is evidence that she had written to authorities in Nova Scotia to have it returned directly to her.

Violin and case, possibly the instrument Hartley played on Titanic.

It is quite believable that Hartley saved his violin. It is difficult to imagine any musician taking great care to save only his empty instrument case. Hartley’s was bulky and would have impeded his ability to manoeuver and try to save himself. It only makes sense for him to have gone to such measures for the purpose of saving a violin that carried great sentimental value to him.

If the violin proves to be authentic, then one must consider how it came to be preserved in the first place. Hartley must have taken the time in his last moments to pack it away and strap the case on over his lifebelt. This evidence alone washes away any notion that the band was swept off the deck while still performing. For the purposes of our Hartley Solo Theory*, the existence of the violin casts a shadow on the idea that Hartley had the time (or took the time) to play Nearer, My God, To Thee.

Detail from a period tribute violin, Lancashire, England

It is a catch-22. Would the violin fetch a higher price if a collector believed it was the one that played Nearer, My God, To Thee on Titanic? Would the violin's very existence make it nearly impossible for Hartley to have played the hymn? The authenticity of the violin is still under review.

Related Posts
*Titanic's final number: Hartley Solo Theory
Titanic's final number: Paddy Dillon's testimony?

Friday, 3 February 2012

Titanic's final number: Hartley Solo Theory

Nearer, My God, To Thee received so much attention after the sinking of Titanic that it deserves special consideration as the final number. In my last post* I discussed that the band would have needed a printed arrangement to have performed the hymn. But what if the band did not have one? Was there still a chance that the hymn could be performed? The short answer is yes.

There is one eyewitness account to support the idea that Nearer My God to Thee was performed as a solo. A man who remained on the ship until the last and survived was coal trimmer Paddy Dillon. From the poop deck he saw the ship break in two, when he said the musicians slid off the deck. Dillon recalled, “There was one musician left. He was the violinist and was playing the air of the hymn Nearer My God To Thee. The notes of this music were the last thing I heard before I went off the poop and felt myself going headlong in the icy water….”

The “air” refers to the tune without any of the harmony, in essence, a solo.

Hartley Solo theory.
There was one musician on board who may have been able to play the hymn from memory, even under duress.

Wallace Hartley had grown up the son of a choirmaster. Hartley Sr. had introduced Nearer, My God, To Thee to his church, Bethel Chapel, and he often chose the selection for their services. A cousin who grew up with Wallace Hartley recalled him practicing the hymn in variations on his violin.

Was it possible that Wallace Hartley played it as a solo from memory after the rest of the band deserted the performance venue? After all, his parents noted that it had been his favorite piece (the Propior Deo version).

Moreover, Hartley had told a friend once that should he ever find himself on a sinking ship he didn’t think he “…would do better than to play Oh God Our Help in Ages Past or Nearer, My God, To Thee.” Wallace Hartley’s parents were so convinced that he had performed the hymn that they had the first notes of Propior Deo inscribed on his gravestone.

This theory proposes that the last number performed by the complete band was ‘Autumn’ and after they disbanded, that Hartley performed Nearer, My God, To Thee as a solo.

To depict the whole band playing the hymn in the movies, any of the hymn's versions would do.

But if it was ever to be written into a stage play or film that Hartley played a solo, it would only be historically accurate to give Hartley's family credit and depict him playing Nearer, My God, To Thee set to Propior Deo.

To be continued…

Related Posts
*Sheets, hymnbook or by heart? - Nearer, My God, To Thee
Titanic's final number: Hartley's violin
Carlos Hurd: Nearer, My God, To Thee

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Sheets, hymnbook or by heart? - Nearer, My God, To Thee

Hymn Arrangement
Nearer, My God, To Thee was not listed in the White Star Line songbook. However, under the category “Suites, Fantasias, etc.” the songbook did have the general line, “National Anthems, Hymns &c., of all Nations”. This is one of those subjects that is open to question – could Nearer, My God, To Thee have been one of the unlisted hymns for which the band had an arrangement? If so, which version of the hymn?

In the absence of an arrangement, was it possible for the band to have played from a hymnbook? There must have been several on board, as passengers were known to have played for Sunday services that very day.

The pianist conceivably could have played the four part harmony, with the strings dividing up the soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices. To stretch our imaginations, it could even be remotely possible that the band members read from a single copy – if they had very good eyesight and stood close together.

Did the Band Play Nearer, My God, To Thee by Heart?
Typically in movies Titanic's musicians are depicted playing Nearer, My God, To Thee by memory or improvisation, on the spur of the moment, caught up by the emotion of the event. So, let's talk about this in musical terms. 

In the very last moments, would it have been musically possible for the band to improvise by ear – discussing beforehand which key to play it in, discussing which tune they should play (the one Americans would recognize, or British, or a particular band member's choice just because it was his personal favourite?), then explaining it to the Catholic bandsmen who may not have known it? To the public it may seem a simple matter for musicians who normally play from arrangements* to adjust to playing by ear on the spot, but indeed it is not.

And what about the time? If Autumn was heard when the bow went under, would there have been time in the few remaining moments (before the angle was too great) for the band to pull together an ad hoc performance of Nearer, My God, To Thee?

Imagine these final moments when the ship was tipping forward at an ever-increasing pitch and death was eminent. Would any musician in this situation have been able to focus on the next chord in the progression and then analyze by ear which part of that harmony to voice on their instrument? Could a group hold together and do that?

Well, it makes for a riveting scene in a movie to see the band play the hymn by heart as Titanic becomes engulfed by the ocean. But if historical accuracy is the goal, perhaps movie makers should depict the band playing from a printed arrangement of some kind. If Nearer, My God, To Thee was performed by Titanic’s band, I do not believe they could have performed it any other way, under these circumstances.

Related Posts
*Did Titanic's band play from memory?
What was listed in the White Star Line MUSIC songbook? Part I
Titanic's final number: Hartley Solo Theory