In the days following the disaster few people had a clear idea about what had happened the night Titanic sank. It is quite easy to become confused with passenger accounts and press reports. In many cases the witnesses and reporters had incomplete or inaccurate information. In the aftermath of the disaster all involved were grasping to figure out what had happened. When reading accounts it is important to see the given information within a larger context.
Some accounts of the “last piece played” may have referred to the regular Sunday evening concerts, and did not necessarily tell the tale of music played on the Titanic after she had struck ice.
Kate Buss, a Second Class passenger, wrote that a fellow passenger, Robert Norman, had requested the last number: “Mr. N.* told me on Sunday night that the last thing they played was at his request, and I hear that they were playing Nearer My God to Thee.”
The only trouble with this information was that Buss survived and Norman did not. As Buss sat safely in her lifeboat, the band played the last piece, and soon after, Norman went down with the ship and perished. The last time they had spoken was when she was still on board. If Norman had requested Nearer, My God, To Thee, when would he have had the chance to tell her about it?
It is almost certain that Buss is herself mistaken in this case. It is more likely that Norman had requested the last number of the Five-piece band in the Second Class entranceway in the evening concert (a favorite of his from the White Star Line songbook), and that he had told her about that at some point before she was lowered in the lifeboat. Later Buss heard that the “last number” (the only one talked about) was the hymn, and she mistakenly put the two together.
This is just one example of a passenger account that requires the reader to think about the information. The more Titanic accounts that are read, the more the cross-references help explain the whole story.
*The identity of Mr. N.
Several passengers had remembered him as the one who had played for the Sunday night hymn sing in Second Class. Buss: “Another acquaintance, a young fellow, so nice, Mr. N. (Edinburgh) played the piano.” Lawrence Beesley explained that the hymn sing had happened, “with the assistance at the piano of a gentleman who sat at the purser’s table opposite me (a young Scotch engineer).…”
It is known that this gentleman was Robert Douglas Norman, Second Class passenger, an engineer from Scotland. His body was recovered, #287, and rests in Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It sounds like he spent the early evening playing for the hymn sing and then later in the evening heard the Five-piece band play, and requested the last number.