Titanic’s final number: A century of debate

For a century it has been debated which was the last piece of music played by Titanic’s band. As soon as survivors rescued by the steamer Carpathia were able to communicate with the outside world about the event, word spread that they had heard strains of the hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee in their lifeboats from across the water. There seemed to be such a unified chorus of people swearing they had heard the hymn that it was impossible to ignore the eyewitness testimony.

The men who had not gained a space in a lifeboat, who remained on the ship until it sank and later miraculously survived, had not heard the hymn. One of the last survivors to leave the ship was Harold Bride, a wireless operator, who washed off the bow on an upturned collapsible lifeboat. As he floated away from the ship he heard the band playing a piece he called ‘Autumn’.

Even Autumn has been debated, early press reports claiming that it was a hymn (possibly influenced by the fact that Nearer, My God, To Thee was a hymn). That was, until someone pointed out that Autumn, an American hymn tune, would not have been familiar to any of the European musicians, nor to Harold Bride.

A passenger who was on board to the last was Colonel Archibald Gracey. He said emphatically, “If, as has been reported, Nearer, My God, To Thee was one of the selections, I assuredly should have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death to us and one likely to create a panic that our special efforts were directed towards avoiding….”

Historian Walter Lord proposed that the last piece was in fact Songe d’automne (Dream of Autumn), a selection in the White Star Line songbook for which the band had music sheets. He pointed out that both British and American survivors had said they heard Nearer, My God, To Thee, but how could this be possible, when the hymn was set to different tunes on both sides of the ocean (Horbury or Propior Deo in the UK and Bethany in the US)?

Filmmakers have been divided on the tune of Nearere, My God, To Thee, as is evidenced by these prominent movies.

A Night to Remember directed by Roy Ward Baker
Based on Walter Lord’s book of the same title, Baker chose to depict the final number as Nearer, My God, To Thee set to Horbury.

Titanic (1997) directed by James Cameron
Cameron’s Titanic is the most-watched movie on the subject. He chose to set Nearer, My God, To Thee to Bethany.

It has been a century since Titanic sank and experts on this subject are still divided as to which piece truly was played as the final number. This post is part one of a series that will be dedicated to discussing the possibilities.

2 thoughts on “Titanic’s final number: A century of debate

  1. For them to have played at all under those circumstances was the bravest thing. Still, as a musician I've been fascinated by the debate on the final number and I'd like to share my thoughts. Stay tuned.


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