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.
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