Titanic’s final number: Hartley Solo Theory

Nearer, My God, To Thee received so much attention after the sinking of Titanic that it deserves special consideration as the final number. In my last post* I discussed that the band would have needed a printed arrangement to have performed the hymn. But what if the band did not have one? Was there still a chance that the hymn could be performed? The short answer is yes.

There is one eyewitness account to support the idea that Nearer My God to Thee was performed as a solo. A man who remained on the ship until the last and survived was coal trimmer Paddy Dillon. From the poop deck he saw the ship break in two, when he said the musicians slid off the deck. Dillon recalled, “There was one musician left. He was the violinist and was playing the air of the hymn Nearer My God To Thee. The notes of this music were the last thing I heard before I went off the poop and felt myself going headlong in the icy water….”

The “air” refers to the tune without any of the harmony, in essence, a solo.

Hartley Solo theory.

There was one musician on board who may have been able to play the hymn from memory, even under duress.

Wallace Hartley had grown up the son of a choirmaster. Hartley Sr. had introduced Nearer, My God, To Thee to his church, Bethel Chapel, and he often chose the selection for their services. A cousin who grew up with Wallace Hartley recalled him practicing the hymn in variations on his violin.

Was it possible that Wallace Hartley played it as a solo from memory after the rest of the band deserted the performance venue? After all, his parents noted that it had been his favorite piece (the Propior Deo version).

Moreover, Hartley had told a friend once that should he ever find himself on a sinking ship he didn’t think he “…would do better than to play Oh God Our Help in Ages Past or Nearer, My God, To Thee.” Wallace Hartley’s parents were so convinced that he had performed the hymn that they had the first notes of Propior Deo inscribed on his gravestone.

This theory proposes that the last number performed by the complete band was ‘Autumn’ and after they disbanded, that Hartley performed Nearer, My God, To Thee as a solo.

To depict the whole band playing the hymn in the movies, any of the hymn’s versions would do.

But if it was ever to be written into a stage play or film that Hartley played a solo, it would only be historically accurate to give Hartley’s family credit and depict him playing Nearer, My God, To Thee set to Propior Deo.

To be continued…

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17 thoughts on “Titanic’s final number: Hartley Solo Theory

  1. George, Steve Turner, The Band That Played On, Thomas Nelson, 2011. On page 151 you will find this quotation, but I'll re-type a section:…Thomas Patrick \”Paddy\” Dillon, who was interviewed by a local newspaper in Plymouth, England, after arriving back on the Red Star Line ship Lapland on April 28. He said he was one of the last to leave the ship and that the poop deck was by then at an angle of around sixty degrees and after a second explosion the bow \”seemed to bob up and then break clean off like a piece of carrot….There was one musician left….\” etc.


  2. Hi Fiz, I do have a recording from my digital piano set to \”violin\” so we could hear what it might have sounded like in this solo scenario – to my ear it doesn't sound very good (from my synth) but I'm afraid it is the best we are going to get. I searched YouTube for Nearer, My God, To Thee played to Propior Deo and I couldn't find anything. It seems to be rare, indeed. I was hoping to have the sound sample on my post as soon as it went up, but my technical support (husband) wasn't available prior to my upload time. I'm hoping to have it up soon. Check back within a few more hours. You will see the audio strip in the empty space right beneath the print music example.If you would also like me to play the hymn version on a piano sound, just let me know. That would give you a chance to hear the four part harmony as it is in the musical example above. It is quite a pretty hymn. Rebekah


  3. Chris, Thanks for letting us know. Here in North America (I am Canadian) we are most familiar with Lowell Mason's Bethany version. When you sing this at funerals in Germany, are the words a translation of \”Nearer, My God, To Thee\”? Do you know of any recordings?


  4. Thanks very much, Rebekah – I'd never seen that Dillon interview before and will have to try and obtain the whole thing. (It's great to know that \”new\” discoveries are still out there waiting to be made.) 🙂 I'm really enjoying your series on the Titanic's band and am looking forward to your future entries on the subject.


  5. Here in Poland in catholic churches we sing only Bethany. It starts with \”Być bliżej ciebie chcę, o Boże mój\” (in literal translation it is: \”I want to be nearer (or closer) to You (Thee), My God\”)


  6. How beautiful to see the words in a different language! My sound file is up. It is me playing a solo string sound on my keyboard, and I've included double stops – when a violinist plays two strings at the same time. If Hartley had played the hymn in variations he would have been able to play it in a similar way.


  7. 1. Być bliżej Ciebie chcę, o Boże mój,Z Tobą przez życie lżej nieść krzyża znój.Ty w sercu moim trwasz,Z miłością Stwórcy ziemTulisz w ojcowski płaszcz, chroniąc mnie w nim.I want to be closer to You, my GodIt is easier to carry the cross with YouYou last in my heartwith love of Creator of the earthYou hug me in Your parental coat and protect me in it.2. Być bliżej Ciebie chcę na każdy dzień,za Tobą życiem swym iść jako cień.Daj tylko, Boże dusz,obecność Twoją czuć,myśl moją pośród burz na Ciebie zwróć.I want to be closer to You every dayTo follow You with my life, like a shadow [of Yours]But give me only, God of souls,to feel your presenceMake my thoughts focus on You when there are storms around here.This is two first parts of the hymn in Polish language. I didn't include in this translation to English these old English language words like \”Thee\”, because also in polish language we sing this with normal, present, modern language.


  8. Hi Rebekah, I also have one question, actually not associated with the \”last song thread\”.I analysed which instruments did musicians played and something there is not right. There were eight musicians. Hartley – violinKrins – violinHume – violinBricoux – celloWoodward – celloClark – bass (? not sure)and:Taylor – pianoBrialey – pianoSo there were two pianists.They all were divided into two separeted ensembles: trio and quintet. The quintet played in reception room where there were one piano, so it required one pianist. So the trio was set with two string musicians and one pianist! Why pianist? In the B deck reception room there was no piano, when the trio was playing! So is was actually the duo? Or one of the pianists could play also string instrument and did?What do you think Rebekah?


  9. Also, one more question: do you have some information about musicians' outfit, the uniform, how did it look like? Or they were performing with normal clothes, like tuxedo or something?


  10. Good observation! I've invested hours of thinking into the ensembles, and I've changed my mind several times. Either there was a piano in the B Deck Reception Room (outside the restaurant) that we don't know about, or the instrument list that has come down to us is inaccurate. I'm going to have an extensive series of posts on this subject in the future.


  11. I believe it was Jack Thayer who noted that the musicians were wearing their regular uniforms with the green facings while they performed during the sinking, giving the impression that all was normal. There is no photograph of Titanic's band (either quintet or trio). From Thayer's words we can gather that they wore dark uniforms with forest green lapels. Their hat would have looked like a marching bandsman's hat (military style?) with some kind of lyre/music symbol on it. I believe they had paid for White Star upgrades to their uniforms – perhaps new matching buttons. Christopher Ward wrote a book called \”And the Band Played On\” about his grandfather, Jock Hume. In it there is a photograph of the band Jock played with on the Cunard liner, RMS Carmania, on his last trip before he sailed on Titanic. That gives a good idea of what a band looked like in 1912.


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