The music played on Titanic remains one of the most fascinating sections of the ocean liner’s history. And during the 1912 voyage, Titanic’s passengers were just as enthralled by its musical entertainment as we are, from the orchestra to its travelling musicians.
By 1912, attitudes towards music had shifted to a far more modern outlook. People were more adventurous with their musical tastes and were keen for the newest, most exciting pieces.
With the complete White Star Line songbook to choose from, music was undoubtedly one of the biggest features of entertainment on board for wealthier passengers. And though it differed immensely, it’s fair to say that music was one form of entertainment that regardless of class, could be enjoyed by everybody on board.
The orchestra would play renditions popular songs around Titanic’s public areas, while on the Poop Deck, third-class passengers would dance the nights away to lively bagpipe music of their own.
WALLACE HARTLEY & THE BAND
During RMS Titanic’s voyage, it was Wallace Hartley who led the infamous eight-member orchestral band. The band were employed by Messr C. W. & F. N Black of Liverpool, and expected to learn to play The White Star Line’s songbook by heart.
The full band included: Wallace Hartley, Roger Marie Bricoux, Theodore Ronald Brailey, John Wesley Woodward, John Frederick Preston Clarke, John Law Hume, Percy Cornelius Taylor and Georges Alexandre Krins.
The eight members were split into two groups, ensuring that a variety of social occasions would be covered. For example, a quintet played at teatime, after dinner parties and for Sunday services, while the trio would play the Café Parisian and in the A La Carte Restaurant’s reception room.
With the help of a member of the congregation, Wallace Hartley had learnt how to play the violin at church. A musician at heart, Hartley felt unfulfilled by his first job as a bank clerk. And with his father’s disapproval looming around a musical career, he gained experience taking on various performances with orchestras. Hartley also played in a stylish cafe in Leeds with their house band, The Savage Club.
When Hartley sadly died during the sinking, it was assumed that his violin had got lost at sea. 10 days after the sinking, Hartley’s body was discovered and the violin was not listed in his possessions, causing some to believe that the violin was stolen by somebody handling the bodies.
Andrew Aldridge of Henry Aldridge and Son explained:
“In all the books and films made about the Titanic, Wallace Hartley is always featured as playing this violin until the end. We now know that minutes before the end he placed his beloved violin in this hard-wearing travelling case. The bag rested on top of his lifejacket and would have largely been kept out of the water.”
To first-class passengers, music aboard the ship was elegant background entertainment. The band would complement their nights of conversation and card games as they made requests. The songbook’s request list is said to have been divided into a variety of musical categories, with opera at the start. Rossini is likely to be the only composer that modern audiences would be familiar with.
third class music on titanic
While music aboard RMS Titanic was important to all classes, the separation between rich and poor could be seen and certainly be heard. The ship’s orchestra would not have played on the Poop Deck for third-class passengers, so instead, the lower class gathered together within the Third Class General Room to create their own lively and merry nights of musical entertainment.
While a piano is not featured in the 1997 film’s dance scene, it has since been confirmed that there was indeed an upright piano in the room, which passengers would have made the most of for their entertainment.
And of course, it wasn’t uncommon for third-class passengers to bring their own instruments on their travels. The third-class band included Irish passenger Eugene Daly, who had brought along his uileann pipes. They were a big hit with his audience.
A far cry from the calming background sounds of Café Parisian, the rowdy bottom deck was a place where letting your hair down definitely wasn’t frowned upon.
Daniel Buckley, letter written on board Carpathia, April 18, 1912:
“…WE HAD A GRAND TIME ON THE TITANIC. WE GOT VERY GOOD DIET AND WE HAD A VERY JOLLY TIME DANCING AND SINGING. WE HAD EVERY KIND OF AN INSTRUMENT ON BOARD TO AMUSE US, BUT ALL THE AMUSEMENT SANK IN THE DEEP.”
Lawrence Beesley, The Loss of the S. S. Titanic, 1912:
“Looking down astern from the boat-deck or from B deck to the steerage quarters, I often noticed how the third-class passengers were enjoying every minute of the time: a most uproarious skipping game of the mixed-double type was the great favorite, whilst ‘in and out and roundabout’ went a Scotchman with his bagpipes playing something that Gilbert says ‘faintly resembled an air.’”
the night titanic sank
For third-class passengers, it is suggested that panic didn’t truly set in until it was too late. On the fateful night that the ocean liner hit the iceberg, joyful escapades of third-class passengers continued after a visit from stewards.
In a letter written to Athlone Piper’s Band, Daly describes the lively evening of dancing and joy before the ship hit the iceberg.
‘I played the pipes and there was a great deal of dancing and singing. This was kept up even after we had struck, for the stewards came through and told us that we need not be afraid, that everything was all right. There was no danger, they said.
‘Most of those assembled believed them until it was too late… I lost my pipes….”
On the night of 14 April through to the early morning of 15 April, RMS Titanic sank. Arguably one of the most memorable scenes from Cameron’s 1997 film, the separated band of Titanic joined together in union to calm passengers with their music. And Cameron’s scene was most definitely based on the truth; the brave band played their instruments as terrified passengers made their way to the lifeboats, up until the very last moments that the ship was afloat.
The final song played by the RMS Titanic’s band has been largely debated. First Class passenger Mrs Vera Dick recalled that the final hymn was “Nearer My God to Thee”, while Harold Bride’s account on the other hand, suggests that the final hymn may have been “Autumn” or “Song d’Automne”. The hymns “Bethany” and “Horbury” are also considered high up the list of possibilities.
While it’s likely that we’ll never know for certain, Hartley once told a friend that “Nearer My God to Thee” would be one of his final song choices if he were on a sinking ship.
Music was at the heart of RMS Ttitanic’s voyage right until the end, and the bravery of its band certainly won’t be forgotten.
You can discover more about music on Titanic at Merseyside Maritime Museum’s event Music for the Classes. It’s the perfect way to spend February half-term in Liverpool.
Liverpool is closely intertwined with the story of Titanic’s voyage, and we’re located just a short walk away from the fantastic Titanic exhibition and events held at the Maritime Museum.