Titanic sailed in the golden age of trained musicians

The Music Scene Then and Now.

In 1912 the music scene was on the eve of many transformations. At that time popular music, born of divergent cultural influences in the USA, was beginning to have an infectious appeal to audiences. Ragtime was making it big abroad, as was jazz. And yet, the music of the Romantic era was still the bread and butter of performing musicians. Popular music was still only a sideline diversion. Tchaikovsky was second only to Strauss in the number of selections in the White Star Line Songbook.

In pre-WWI composition the limits of tonality were stretched by impressionist composers, and yet music was still several years away from the widespread use of atonality. When the Titanic sailed an entire room of people in First or Second Class could listen to music by trained composers or popular music by self-trained musicians and recognize it all. “Classical” and popular music shared the same stage. Those paths were soon to part, and throughout the twentieth century university-trained composers would become more and more alienated from the listening, paying public. Their music was often very good, but it didn’t balance accessibility with art.

So, to a trained musician, the Titanic sailed in the golden age of trained musicians. A classically trained performer could make a decent living playing on a ship to an appreciative audience. Conservatories were turning their graduates out into a world where they could find real work performing in hotels, tearooms, in public orchestras and bands, not to mention major symphony orchestras. And real composers were getting “prime time air play,” so to speak.

Major composers are highly regarded for a reason: their music reaches a rare level of artistry. Minor composers are obscure for a reason: their music fills a need for a while, and is then easily replaced by a fresh crop of minor composers. Somehow the major composers produce irreplaceable music that remains fresh. Or, at least that is how it should be. In the twentieth century the composers who were supposed to be the major figures fell into obscurity because their music no longer appealed to the public. New classical music suddenly had a very small sphere of influence, and was limited mostly to the academic circles that surrounded schools of music in universities.

Do you recognize this music?
Arnold Schoenberg, Piano Concerto Op. 42, composed with the Twentieth Century atonal technique.

Do you recognize this music?
Sergei Rachmaninoff, c minor Piano Concerto, composed in the Twentieth Century, but influenced by music of the Romantic period.

A WSL songbook in use on the Olympic in 1934 reflects a public abandonment of music by current trained composers, with only two selections I can see, Valse Triste by Sibelius and a Prelude by Rachmaninoff, both who composed after the style of Romantic masters.

It is an indulgence to think back to the era in which the Titanic sailed and wonder whether “trained composer” music would have kept its market share had universities not so uniformly pushed one style of composition over others. The academic world took all the young talent and steered it in one direction. And perhaps in doing so, lost its larger public audience.

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5 thoughts on “Titanic sailed in the golden age of trained musicians

  1. Hi Rebekah, I have a question. Did C. W. & F. N. Black employed all White Star Line ships orchestras? And C. W. & F. N. Black was creating music brochures – and – signed these as White Star Line's?


  2. As far as I can tell, it was a recent development in the area of ships' orchestras to have C. W. & F. N. Black handle all aspects of music on board. The agency became the sole handler of music and musicians on all shipping lines, not just the White Star Line: hiring musicians, assigning them to particular voyages, paying them a small wage, etc. I think you are asking whether the same booklet was used on all White Star Line ships – Olympic, Titanic, and later Britannic. I believe this is true. As of about January 1912 (100 years ago this month), C. W. & F. N. Black was in the middle of creating a new work arrangement for musicians on board steamers. Instead of being crew, musicians were to sail as Second Class passengers, which meant they were not under the captain's command or covered by Workmen's Compensation. Their passage would be free. Wages were lowered, making tips more important. The shipping line no longer had to think about music, that was left to the agents. But the musicians lost out in the details of the new terms, and as far as I can tell, these terms remain in effect 100 years later on ships today.


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