From the moment Titanic had begun to take on water until about 2:17 a.m., the ship had been sinking steadily, but with only a slight list. It would have been possible for the band to play during those hours. The music stands would have stood erect, the cellists’ chairs would have stayed in place, the standing bandsmen would have stood without wavering, and the sheets would have stayed on the stands without slipping off.
What happened next? The band’s last moments have been the subject of many discussions. When reading accounts, consider the survivor’s proximity to the ship and whether their story works logistically. Oh, and consider their “ear”.
So, at 2:17 wireless operator Harold Bride was washed off the ship on a collapsible lifeboat when the bow slipped beneath the waves. At that time he heard the band playing. For the next several minutes until the ship sank the angle got steeper by the second. Within three minutes the ship had completely sunk (estimated at 2:20 a.m., April 15).
The ever-increasing angle of the ship as it tipped forward would have made performance impossible in the final moments. Not even counting the human element of distraction (the realization that this was the end), consider the music stands, chairs, one’s footing, and gravity pulling the sheet music away. Whoever suggested that the waves had engulfed the musicians while they continued to play was being dramatic and had no understanding of the logistics of performance.
Survivor Caroline Brown watched the event from a lifeboat. “The band played marching from deck to deck, and as the ship went under I could still hear the music. The musicians were up to their knees in water the last time I saw them.” From her account one would believe Titanic had a brass band that continued to march until they were wading through water. However, all the musicians but the pianist played strings, and we know the cellists and double bassist weren’t marching. In my opinion, this account was a product of Brown’s lively imagination.
Survivor A. H. Barkworth remained on board until the last. “I do not wish to detract from the bravery of anybody, but I might mention that when I first came on deck the band was playing a waltz. The next time I passed where the band had been stationed, the members had thrown down their instruments and were not to be seen.” Barkworth painted a more realistic picture.
The accounts of eyewitness survivors who were in lifeboats cannot be considered nearly as reliable as those who were on board. Yes, they experienced the event in person, from the vantage point of their lifeboats. But when weighing the evidence on the band’s final performance, including which piece they played in the last moments, proximity to the ship matters.
A Good Ear
Not only did Harold Bride hear the band playing in Titanic‘s last moments, he was able to identify the music he heard, though only with the cryptic, unexplained title ‘Autumn’. This music had had such a big impact on him that he mentioned it several times while giving his oral account of the event. He kept coming back to the haunting memory of that music, it had touched him so.
Why is his account so reliable? Besides the fact that he was close enough to the ship to be a trustworthy witness, he had been born with an excellent sense of hearing. He was a wireless operator. His livelihood depended on his acute, innate auditory sense. Not only would he have employed this talent while he worked, but every life experience he had would have been imbued with a memory of what he had heard, as well as what he saw. All through the telling of his experience of the night of April 14-15 was the impression the music had made on him. Because of Bride’s reliable ear it can be believed with certainty that at the moment Titanic’s bow went under, Autumn music was in the air.
To be continued…