After a century, is it possible to discover anything new about the final piece that was played by Titanic’s band? The unanswered question of the last piece is well documented. Most people who know the story of the Titanic are aware that experts cannot agree on whether it was Nearer, My God, To Thee or the mysterious ‘Autumn’.
Based on the title alone, Walter Lord (author of A Night to Remember) first speculated that Harold Bride’s ‘Autumn’ was a hymn with a tune of that name, based on information from an article published in the New York Times. Fred Vallance, who had been a bandleader on Laconia in 1912, later pointed out to Lord that ‘Autumn’ (as Bride had called it) had been a popular waltz in Britain at the time and that musicians had agreed that Bride had been referring to a number called Songe d’automne.
Songe d’automne, original key:
Lord’s Songe d’automne theory gained support from some Titanic historians, but others have remained loyal to (or returned to) the idea that Nearer, My God, To Thee was the final performance. Several survivors had claimed they heard the hymn, and it was given so much press that the idea stuck.
Nearer, My God, To Thee, original key:
But what did the survivors who heard music from their lifeboats really hear? The sea was silent, glassy and flat, though towards the end there would have been extraneous noises associated with putting off the collapsible lifeboats. Even so, some of the lifeboat’s passengers said they heard something familiar.
Three Note Theory
I would like to propose a new theory of what was played and heard that night. I believe I can provide musical evidence that the final number played by the band was indeed Songe d’automne, but that the survivors at a distance who heard the popular waltz thought they heard Nearer, My God, To Thee.
Let me walk my readers through my analysis so musicians and non-musicians alike can all understand how Songe d’automne could be mistaken for the hymn. For the sake of this analysis I am going to compare the melodies of the two pieces of music in a way that they begin on the same pitch (note).
My theory can all be boiled down to three notes. Sing this tune. (Please turn down your volume to play the clips.)
Now sing it with the opening notes of Songe d’automne.
Now sing it with the opening notes of Nearer, My God, To Thee, set to Bethany.
You should hear that both pieces begin with the same tune.
Harold Bride wasn’t the only one with good ears the night Titanic sank. Sitting silently on the calm water were several hundred passengers in lifeboats. Those who were the greatest distance away from Titanic heard nothing from the ship. But those in lifeboats that were still relatively close would have heard the commotion on Titanic as men attempted to cut away the last collapsible lifeboats, and perhaps faint strains from the band, which was still playing inside the ship.
The opening melody of Songe d’automne begins with a gripping tune that cries out then wilts downward with a melancholic turn. This phrase of music – especially the first three notes – would have cut through the noise of Titanic‘s final moments and reached the survivors in lifeboats, who had nothing to do but wait and listen. After the first several notes the rest would have faded a bit as the musicians played softer to the end of the descending phrase. But at least two from the ocean-bound audience caught enough to hear a tune that spoke to their hearts.
Heard from a distance, the music of Songe d’automne sounded so similar in melody and rhythm to Nearer, My God, To Thee that for a moment these survivors sitting in the lifeboats thought they heard the hymn.
After those first three notes a few may have even picked up the tune and begun to sing. Several survivor accounts mention that people were heard singing Nearer, My God, To Thee. Some thought they heard the singing from the ship, but it is more likely that they heard survivors in other lifeboats carrying the tune.
“As the screams in the water multiplied, another sound was heard, strong and clear at first, then fainter in the distance. It was the melody of the hymn ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee,’ played by the string orchestra…. Some of those on the water started to sing the words….” (As reported by Carlos Hurd, Evening World, April 19, 1912.)
To analyze the opening measures of Songe d’Automne, and compare them to the opening measures of Nearer, My God, To Thee (Bethany setting), one can see how similar the two melodies are.
*The curved line is a tie which indicates that the two connected notes are sustained in one continuous sound.
Allow me to get a little technical now and describe my theory in musical terminology. The first three notes of both melodies form a descending line of intervals comprised of a major second followed by another major second. It matters not that Songe d’automne is in a minor key and Nearer, My God, To Thee is in a major key. The opening intervals of both melodies are identical. Beyond the first three notes, the phrases of both melodies continue on to follow a similar melodic contour.
Also, the rhythm bears an uncanny similarity. While not identical, both follow a pattern of a sustained long note followed by two quarter notes (crotchets).
What could this cross-reference mean?
Beyond the anecdotal evidence from Bride or other survivors, this music analysis provides a fascinating cross-reference between the melodies in question.
This theory could reconcile why two different numbers were identified as the last piece. From a distance, the lifeboat survivors heard music that sounded like the opening of Nearer, My God, To Thee. The music then faded from the opening, or was covered by singing and other sounds associated with the sinking. Heard on the ship, the music continued from the opening and Harold Bride heard the band’s last piece, Autumn. By extension this theory could also explain why those in lifeboats insisted they had heard the hymn, and those on the ship insisted they had not.
This theory could answer the question of which version of the hymn was heard. The setting of Nearer, My God, To Thee that most closely resembles Songe d’automne is Bethany.
This theory could also confirm what Harold Bride meant by Autumn. If the tune that was actually performed by the band sounded like Nearer, My God, To Thee from a distance, then the music must have carried a striking similarity to the hymn. Songe d’automne fits that description perfectly.
The analysis of the music itself lends credibility to all the passenger accounts. No longer should the focus be on two opposing ideas, one that Autumn was the final piece, and the other that the hymn was the final piece. With the Three Note Theory, it is understood that from one single performance, both pieces of music were heard and experienced by those who lived or died the night Titanic sank.