by Terri Bey
As a former aspiring concert violinist and music lover, I have my personal tastes in music and musicians. Of course, one doesn't have to have to be a musician to have an opinion on music. That being said, I have participated in many spirited, but friendly debates over who the greatest classical composer is (Beethoven) or musical piece (Beethoven's 9th) or singer (Freddie Mercury) or whatever.
However, there have been huge debates and lists which concern the "greatest band ever." Some say The Beatles. Some will pick The Rolling Stones or The Who or even Led Zeppelin. I normally would have said Queen, but there is one band that I think is greater than all of these bands, and is the best band ever and they are the subject of this piece for the March 2020 edition of the Titanic Book Club Newsletter.
I am talking about the Titanic Orchestra.
The Titanic Orchestra was made up of eight musicians. The orchestra consisted of Wallace Henry Hartley (violin and bandleader), John “Jock” Law Hume (violin), Theodore Ronald Brailey (piano), Roger Marie Bricoux (cello), Georges Alexandre Krins (violin), Percy Cornelius Taylor (piano and cello), John Wesley Woodward (cello), and John Frederick Preston Clarke (bass violin). The orchestra was not employed by the White Star Line. The orchestra was contracted out by the Liverpool firm of C.W. & F.N. Black.
Before the fateful day, the band would be playing in quartets both in First Class and in Second Class. They would be playing various types of musical pieces from the Titanic Songbook, which contained over 300 songs. The orchestra played pieces such as Offenbach's "Barcarolle," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," by Irving Berlin, and many others. These musicians, who had never played together before the voyage, had to be top musicians and had to know every song and had to be able to play a song when requested by a passenger who would request a song by saying the corresponding number. In my view, this is greatness in and of itself.
On that fateful night, all eight members of the orchestra, led by Wallace Hartley, went into the First Class Lounge and starting playing to calm the passengers. As Titanic continued to sink, the band went out onto the boat deck and continued to play until the very end. The last song played by the band was "Nearer My God to Thee." Many Titanic historians have debated whether the last song played by the band was actually "Nearer My God to Thee," but for the purposes of this piece, I am going with "Nearer My God to Thee." As Hartley was a Methodist and said that if he were on a sinking ship, he'd play the "Propior Deo" or Methodist version of that particular hymn, I am going to go with that as well.
The Titanic Band is the greatest ever because they perform under the greatest kind of pressure that one can imagine. Here they were, entertaining First and Second Class passengers for the first few nights on the biggest and most luxurious passenger liner in the world which also was considered practically unsinkable and the unimaginable happens. Their beautiful ship has struck an iceberg and is sinking. Wallace Hartley was a bit hesitant to go on the Titanic as he had just gotten engaged to his girlfriend Maria Robinson. Right before he was about to leave aboard Titanic, John "Jock" Hume had discovered from his girlfriend Mary Costin that they were going to parents. The couple had planned to get married when Hume was to return. I can't imagine playing as the ship was sinking and Wallace Hartley realizing he will never get to marry Maria and John Hume would never get to see his unborn child, a daughter named Johnann.
These eight brave men realized they had a job to do. They knew they had to keep playing music so there would not be passengers panicking. Much of the music they played was upbeat, such as ragtime. These men did their duty and did it well, knowing they themselves could not be saved. By keeping the passengers calm, I think by keeping the passengers calm more lives were saved. It also was very brave and admirable of these eight men to keep on playing as the great liner was sinking deeper and deeper into the North Atlantic.
The most poignant act of the band was the playing of the hymn, "Nearer My God to Thee." right before the RMS Titanic got ready to take her final plunge. Hartley reportedly said, "Gentlemen, It has been a privilege playing with you tonight." He and the band started playing the famous hymn and played the "Propior Deo" version as he was a Methodist, as I said previously. As that had to have been comforting to the passengers, I can imagine it was comforting to the band as well.
As a former musician who could not even imagine what it was like being in the position of these men, I salute each and every one of them. Hence, they are the greatest band in the world.
Feedback to Terri: Alydace@yahoo.com