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…