Hymn Arrangement Nearer, My God, To Thee was not listed in the White Star Line songbook. However, under the category “Suites, Fantasias, etc.” the songbook did have the general line, “National Anthems, Hymns &c., of all Nations”. This is one of those subjects that is open to question – could Nearer, My God, To Thee have been one of the unlisted hymns for which the band had an arrangement? If so, which version of the hymn?
In the absence of an arrangement, was it possible for the band to have played from a hymnbook? There must have been several on board, as passengers were known to have played for Sunday services that very day.
The pianist conceivably could have played the four part harmony, with the strings dividing up the soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices. To stretch our imaginations, it could even be remotely possible that the band members read from a single copy – if they had very good eyesight and stood close together.
Did the Band Play Nearer, My God, To Thee by Heart?
Typically in movies Titanic‘s musicians are depicted playing Nearer, My God, To Thee by memory or improvisation, on the spur of the moment, caught up by the emotion of the event. So, let’s talk about this in musical terms.
In the very last moments, would it have been musically possible for the band to improvise by ear – discussing beforehand which key to play it in, discussing which tune they should play (the one Americans would recognize, or British, or a particular band member’s choice just because it was his personal favourite?), then explaining it to the Catholic bandsmen who may not have known it? To the public it may seem a simple matter for musicians who normally play from arrangements* to adjust to playing by ear on the spot, but indeed it is not.
And what about the time? If Autumn was heard when the bow went under, would there have been time in the few remaining moments (before the angle was too great) for the band to pull together an ad hoc performance of Nearer, My God, To Thee?
Imagine these final moments when the ship was tipping forward at an ever-increasing pitch and death was eminent. Would any musician in this situation have been able to focus on the next chord in the progression and then analyze by ear which part of that harmony to voice on their instrument? Could a group hold together and do that?
Well, it makes for a riveting scene in a movie to see the band play the hymn by heart as Titanic becomes engulfed by the ocean. But if historical accuracy is the goal, perhaps movie makers should depict the band playing from a printed arrangement of some kind. If Nearer, My God, To Thee was performed by Titanic’s band, I do not believe they could have performed it any other way, under these circumstances.