Did the band really play on?

One of the few facts that everyone “knows” about the Titanic is that the band went down with the ship, playing Nearer My God To Thee as she slipped beneath the dark waters. The story holds a substantial kernel of truth, mixed in with a great deal of myth.

Although the Titanic didn’t have a “band” as such, an ad hoc group of musicians did indeed play as the lifeboats were loading. None survived, and it’s not known what they played, or at what point they finally stopped.

The great problem is that so few survivors witnessed the Titanic’s final moments. For those who escaped before the end, the musicians may well have provided their last memory of the ship. However, they were in no position to know what happened later on.

Washington Herald, April 19 1912

The eight musicians aboard the Titanic played in two separate combinations. The man later eulogized as the bandleader, violinist Wallace Hartley, in fact led a quintet, made up of two violins, one cello, one double bass and a piano. There was also a trio of violin, cello and piano.

It seems likely that not all eight were in the group that assembled half an hour after the collision. After playing atop the grand staircase on the Boat Deck – where they would have had use of a piano – they moved out on deck as the first lifeboats were lowered.

As for what they played, Colonel Archibald Gracie remembered, “I did not recognize any of the tunes, but I know they were cheerful and were not hymns.” Other witnesses described a mixture of popular styles – ragtime, jazz and waltzes – that included the biggest hit of 1911, Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Second Officer Charles Lightoller later wrote “I could hear the band playing cheery sort of music. I don’t like jazz music as a rule, but I was glad to hear it that night. I think it helped us all.”

The legend that the band played Nearer My God To Thee is based on very flimsy evidence – a newspaper interview with a Canadian first-class passenger, Mrs Vera Dick. Although she left on lifeboat 3 at 1am, she claimed to have heard the tune at the crucial moment – a time when the Titanic was breaking apart, and the air was filled with screams.

Gracie was adamant the hymn was never played “If Nearer My God To Thee was one of the selections, I would assuredly have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death to us all … all whom I have questioned or corresponded with … testified emphatically to the contrary”.

Adapted from the Rough Guide to the Titanic; all text © Greg Ward

Bisbee Daily Review, April 19 1912

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S.O.S. – The Titanic Centenary at the BFI

Here’s the full schedule for the Titanic season organised by the British Film Institute.

March 20 6.20pm NFT1, BFI Southbank

Titanic (TV miniseries, 2012)

A special preview screening of episode 1 of Julian Fellowes’ eagerly awaited four-part miniseries, plus a Q&A session featuring Fellowes, director Jon Jones, producers Nigel Stafford-Clark and Simon Vaughan, and cast members.

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April 5 onwards BFI Imax

James Cameron’s Titanic  (USA, 2012)

The new 3D version of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster.

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April 11 6.20pm NFT3, BFI Southbank

Hitchcock’s Titanic Project

A talk by Professor Charles Barr. Alfred Hitchcock was originally scheduled to make his Hollywood directorial debut with a Titanic movie in 1939. He called it a “marvellously dramatic subject for a motion picture”, but the film was never made. Professor Barr will show a sequence edited from his other work to illustrate how it might have looked.

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April 11 8.40pm NFT3, BFI Southbank, and April 15 4pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

Atlantic (UK, 1929)

The first talkie to tell the Titanic story – albeit, thanks to pressure from the White Star Line, under a different name – was based on Ernest Raymond’s play, The Berg.

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April 13–28 times vary NFT3 & Studio, BFI Southbank

April 16 8.20pm NFT2, BFI Southbank; special showing with introduction

A Night To Remember  (UK, 1958)

More of a docudrama than a conventional narrative, the affecting and beautifully made movie version of Walter Lord’s bestselling book stars Kenneth More as its stern-jawed hero, Second Officer Charles Lightoller.

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April 18 6.20pm NFT2, BFI Southbank, and April 25 8.30pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

In Nacht und Eis (Germany, 1912) and Titanic  (Germany, 1943)

By the time the dramatic silent In Nacht Und Eis was released in August 1912, footage of icebergs and the Titanic were so familiar that the trade papers were already saying “they don’t attract audiences any more”. As for the so-called “Nazi Titanic”, it’s a fascinating propaganda piece, commissioned by Josef Goebbels, which calls the disaster “an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”.

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April 24 8.40pm NFT2, BFI Southbank, and April 28 6.40pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

Titanic  (USA, 1953)

Romance and redemption against the backdrop of appalling maritime disaster. The young Robert Wagner falls for Audrey Dalton, and estranged couple Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck face the prospect of separating forever – and that’s before the iceberg intervenes.