Titanic’s WSL songbook – Intermezzos and Popular tunes

What was listed in the White Star Line MUSIC songbook? Part III

The word “number” as it refers to a music selection comes from books like the WSL songbook, where an ensemble’s extensive repertoire was listed by number. The audience could participate in an informal performance, making requests by calling out the numbers of the music they wished to hear.

There is an older tradition in music for hymns to be numbered in hymnals and for composers to number pieces in a collection. Moreover, a composer’s individual output is usually catalogued by Opus numbers. Opera (plural for opus) refers to a staged work with many numbers. But to use the word ‘number’ in the context, “The band played fourteen numbers last night,” comes from the performance culture of request songbooks like the one used on Titanic.

When one considers how many serious classical pieces were listed in the songbook, it becomes even clearer why the band played from sheet music. It looks as though 241 out of the 341 listed numbers were classical (or written by classically trained composers), leaving about 100 selections of the “popular” variety. It is interesting that today’s Titanic recordings tip the balance in favour of the popular-style music, when on the voyage in 1912, it is likely that more than half of the performances focused on the classical arrangements.

The first four pages of the WSL songbook cover opera, suites, waltzes and sacred music (stage, dance and concert works both secular and sacred) and were discussed in my last post. The remaining five pages cover two broader categories, with concert pieces that stood alone or filled in time between other larger works (Entr’acts and Intermezzos), and numbers from the Tin Pan Alley music industry, arranged from sheet music that had become popular. Here is a sampling from the WSL songbook (again, the date of death beside each composer lets us know which ones were alive in 1912):

Entr’actes, Intermezzos, etc.

  • 175. Ave Maria, Gunod, 1893
  • 177. Anvil Chorus from Il-Trovatore, Verdi, 1901
  • 182. Fifth Hungarian Dance, Brahms, 1897
  • 192. Prize Song from Die Meistersinger, Wagner, 1883
  • 193. Serenade, Schubert, 1828
  • 196. Spring Song, Mendelssohn, 1847
  • 198. Traumerei, Schumann, 1856
  • 200. Anitra’s Dance, Grieg, 1907
  • 202. Barcarolle, Tales of Hoffmann, Offenbach, 1880
  • 214. Largo, Handel, 1759
  • 215. Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2, Chopin, 1849
  • 219. Rakoczy, Hungarian March, Liszt, 1886
  • 237. Humoreske, Dvorak, 1904
  • 239. Agnus Dei, Bizet, 1875
  • 241. None but the weary heart, Tchaikovsky, 1893
  • 259. Melody in F, Rubenstein, 1894
  • 260. Salut d’Amour, Elgar, 1934
  • 262. Menuet, Boccherini, 1805

Marches, Cake Walks, etc.

  • 280. Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Berlin, 1989
  • 300. The Ladybird’s Review, Moret, 1943
  • 310. Le prophète, Meyerbeer, 1864
  • 311. Tannhauser, Wagner, 1883
  • 312. Pomp and Circumstance, Elgar, 1934
  • 339. Stars and Stripes Forever, Sousa, 1932

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12 thoughts on “Titanic’s WSL songbook – Intermezzos and Popular tunes

  1. So, the orchestra was using only a numbers of songs? So orchestra members didn't use titles? Like in the film, Wallace says: \”Ok boys, like the Captain said, nice and cheery, so there's no panic! Wedding Dance!\”…


  2. I'm stretching my imagination here. If you have ever been to a hymn sing, someone would call out, \”240!\” and everyone would turn to that hymn and sing it. I've never been to the kind of concert that has a songbook of this kind. In Cuba a couple of years ago we listened to a lounge pianist who had a numbered list of repertoire on her piano and we turned through and I requested the theme from Doctor Zhivago, but by name because we were very close to her. In a room with a large audience where passengers held their own songbooks, I imagine it more like the hymn sing where a brave soul would call out a number and the rest of the audience would be glad they did, liking the selection. Also, there is the matter of the band members finding the sheets quickly. The repertoire was not alphabetical, so I imagine they each had their numbered sheets in order, ready to turn to them. If any of my readers can shed more light on this, the rest of us would be grateful! In the case of the movie, the text was written for dramatic effect. Did the musicians have music stands? Remember, it was widely thought that Titanic's musicians played by memory, and this was depicted in the movies. Non-musicians often overestimate the abilities of musicians, and musicians can be known to encourage the rumours to increase the mystique.


  3. Band Lover, I dearly wish I knew the hymns. In the reproduction WSL songbook I have it lists the titles of Suites, Fantasias, etc. numbers 81-99 and then just says, \”National Anthems, Hymns, &c., of all Nations.\” There are no titles given.


  4. Yes! Alexander's Ragtime Band, Stars and Stripes Forever, quite a number of famous classical pieces, The Teddy Bear's Picnic, Glow Worm, Ave Maria, a Chopin Nocturne, lots of famous numbers from opera. If you have any recordings of Titanic music, you will recognize many other titles as well. About the recordings, it is the fashion today to wish Titanic's band played more popular music recognized by today's audience, so the recordings focus on that part of the songbook. The truth was that most of their repertoire was classical. When people said they heard the band play \”Ragtime\” I believe what they really meant was \”popular\” – I'm unsure how many of the selections were truly \”Ragtime\” as we know it today. I believe in 1912 it was used as a broad term.


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