Music Sheets, hymnbook or by heart? – Nearer, My God, To Thee

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.

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8 thoughts on “Music Sheets, hymnbook or by heart? – Nearer, My God, To Thee

  1. Makes you wonder if they got partly through something they weren't able to finish together – and Hartley may have managed to play a bit more on his own, either the same piece, or another – and that either way, people heard and sang.


  2. I've tried to approach this whole question with an open mind, and have always believed the survivors truly thought they heard Nearer, My God, To Thee. I believe some began to sing. There are several scenarios that could have worked.


  3. It is very possible the band had Nearer, My God, To Thee in their sheets, but unfortunately we will never know for sure. The songbook was only a listing of titles, like a karaoke list. The bandsmen didn't play from the White Star Line Songbook. It was not a published book of music like some imagine it was. Either the band had the sheets for the hymn or they didn't. It that era Classically-trained ensemble musicians didn't improvise or memorize, if fact, today Classical ensemble musicians still play with parts. It is in today's world where the public is used to watching jazz and popular musicians play everything from jamming/improvising or by memory that we assume Titanic's band could have played any number off the tops of their heads. Indeed, because of the intricate nature of Classical music – and let's face it, upwards to 80% of the songbook was classical (just guestimating) – the band read all the music they played. Popular music is very simple and repetitive, classical music and hymns have very complex harmonies which would be difficult for an ensemble to play without parts. Titanic's musicians were a product of their time, and their classical training came into play.


  4. Have you read my Hartley Solo Theory? Early in trying to figure out I tried to explain it saying the complete band had played Autumn together, and then Hartley had played NMGGT as a solo. Anything I have written about Titanic's final number comes from my own thoughts or trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. No one will ever know for certain what the band played last. Bride heard the band playing Autumn just after the Marconi room began to flood. The band was playing just aft and the water would have soon reached them. Barkworth himself believed that he had witnessed the band's last number as he went by them once and they were playing a waltz, and then again and they had stopped, within a very short amount of time. In my theories I have focused on the final number. Passengers had supposedly heard NMGGT at the end. Only one account seems to say it was heard as the first lifeboats were lowered, but if you read my comment on that it seems to be an error of interpreting the notes of the interviewer. Plus, no other account corroborates with that timing. It sounds to me like you would like to read a completely different take on the band's last number. Have you seen this analysis by George Behe? Not only does he suggest that the band played NMGGT, but hymns for the entire last half hour. I'm not sure where a waltz or Autumn figure into his thinking, nor the passengers in lifeboats who heard ragtime to the end, but such is his theory. Just keep in mind that Titanic sank at the end of a Sunday when passengers sang a number of hymns on board. The clergy on Carpathia were not eyewitnesses. Here is the url to his page (copy and paste): hope you find this interesting!


  5. No hassle at all. It was certainly said that Hartley's favourite hymn was Nearer, My God, To Thee. That in and of itself is not evidence that the hymn was played by Titanic's band as the final number the night she sank. Hartley was also said to have had the hymn memorized, and that has been used as evidence the band played NMGGT – but that still doesn't explain how the entire band (all who came from different church denominations) could have played the same hymn together. Hartley was also quoted as saying he would play it on a sinking ship if he were ever in that situation. All this is very interesting, very compelling, and it is very tempting to jump to a conclusion that this proves the band played that number at that time in that place. But the survivors who heard the band up close, on the ship, inside the ship where the band was playing, did not hear the band play Nearer, My God to Thee just before Titanic sank. All the evidence for the hymn came from two women who weren't sure, one reporter, and was then followed up by a deluge of wistful, inaccurate reporting by the press. Evidence for the hymn was either circumstantial or badly out of tune with more substantial eye witness evidence, which was largely ignored by a sensationalist press and a hurting public.


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