Titanic: What is a ‘palm court’ musician?

The Titanic sailed in the Edwardian era before World War I, when British high society made its distinctive mark on culture. It was a golden age when people aspired to put their best foot forward, sit tall, dress appropriately for every occasion and perfect their best manners over tea.

Set up for afternoon tea, Ritz Hotel, London

The name ‘palm court’ came from the unique setting in which musicians played. They were to be heard but not seen. A screen of potted plants (of the palm variety) hid them from view. Rather than a concert for an attentive audience, the purpose of the music was to soften the atmosphere and provide a backdrop for polite conversation. It was a clever arrangement because the sounds carried beautifully beyond the foliage.

Hotel palm court

Classically trained musicians found employment as live performers in all the usual places: orchestras, dance bands, pit orchestras for operas, operettas, ballets, and of course, a chosen few became concert soloists. Despite the recent advent of recorded music, there arose a demand for ‘palm court’ musicians.

Hotels and tea rooms at the time liked to indulge their patrons with the luxury of live music. Small ensembles were hired to perform on a daily schedule. The instrumentation usually consisted of strings, like a string trio or quartet, but could also include piano. The repertoire combined a variety of tastes: arrangements of classical music, numbers from operas and operettas, waltzes, as well as popular tunes of the day.

The listeners were usually of the finer cut of sleeve, those who enjoyed being pampered and served and liked indulging in illusions of grandeur. High tea at the Ritz Hotel in London was complete only with the strains of string music in the background.

Several of Titanic‘s bandsmen had experience playing in palm court settings in European and Caribbean hotels and tea rooms, as well as on other ships, prior to embarking on the Titanic.

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