It has been suggested that it would be interesting to discuss Titanic‘s passenger accounts and compare and contrast those who went down with the ship (and survived) with those who witnessed the event from lifeboats.
Two reports in particular launched what would become the great mystery of Titanic’s final number.
The first was Carlos Hurd’s report that passengers had heard Nearer, My God, To Thee from their lifeboats. His story was the earliest to break that news, and was printed in the New York World, evening edition, on April 18, 1912, the very night Carpathia arrived in New York with Titanic’s survivors. Hurd was a reporter who had been on board Carpathia as a passenger when the ship answered the distress call from Titanic and rushed to her aid. For several days, as Carpathia steamed back to New York, he collected first hand accounts from Titanic’s survivors.
Evening Post April 18, 1912, Extra edition
Band Played “Nearer, My God, To Thee” As the Mammoth Vessel Sank Beneath the Waves
…The ship’s string band gathered in the saloon, near the end, and played “Nearer My God to Thee.”
The following day, on Friday, April 19, 1912, a more complete story ran:
“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 in the dining saloon. Some of those on the water started to sing the words but grew silent as they realized that for the men who played, the music was a sacrament soon to be consumed by death. The serene strains of the hymn and the frantic cries of the dying blended in a symphony of sorrow.”
But on April 20 Hurd was quoted in the Leeds Mercury with his own opinion concerning this story.
“To relate that as the last boats moved away the ship’s string band gathered in the saloon and played ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’ sounds like an attempt to give added colour to a scene which was in itself the climax of solemnity, but various passengers and survivors of the crew agree in declaring they heard this music.”
Two decades after Titanic sank, Hurd again questioned the hymn. It seemed unlikely to him that survivors had been able to hear the music above the “distracting noises”:
“The endeavor to fit such a story together showed how fragmentary was the knowledge of individuals. One would mention an incident which could be confirmed and completed only by another….An instance of this difficulty was…the playing of the hymn music by the English musicians in the sinking ship’s orchestra. Several persons told of having heard this music from their boats, but, because of distracting noises, they could not be sure what the melody was. Two women, who professed familiarity with sacred music, said it was “Nearer, My God, To Thee.” The statement appeared in my report and gained general currency.”
My Three Note Theory proposes that Autumn’s first three notes, which are identical to the opening of Nearer, My God, To Thee, were heard across the water, and that the melody was played by the cello, which had the dynamic capability to project with clarity:
“… another sound was heard, strong and clear at first…” (Hurd)
Then as the music moved through the phrase, softening (musicians are taught to play with a diminuendo, meaning gradually softer, with a descending line of pitches), and diverged to a tune which was increasingly different from Nearer, My God, To Thee:
“…then fainter in the distance.” (Hurd)
Several reports have said there was singing. It could be a historic fact that people began to sing the most familiar verse of Nearer, My God, To Thee, with the belief that they were joining in with the band after hearing the opening notes. While the survivors sang in the distant boats, their voices would have blocked the faint strains of Songe d’automne.
“… Some of those on the water started to sing the words but grew silent as they realized that for the men who played, the music was a sacrament soon to be consumed by death.” (Hurd)
The cries in the water gradually covered the music of the waltz and created a veil of “distracting noises”, which hid Songe d’automne’s melody.
“The serene strains of the hymn and the frantic cries of the dying blended in a symphony of sorrow.” (Hurd)
“Several persons told of having heard this music from their boats, but, because of distracting noises, they could not be sure what the melody was.” (Hurd)
After several days on the ocean, steaming back to New York with 712 survivors, and collecting their accounts, Hurd’s report on the hymn originated with two positive identifications of the final tune the band played.
“Two women, who professed familiarity with sacred music, said it was ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee.'” (Hurd)
It might seem as though I had based my Three Note Theory on Hurd’s April 19 report, but the truth is that the idea came to me in the middle of writing “The story of music on board the RMS TITANIC, an article I wrote for Clavier Companion magazine. Only later did I realize the similarities between my theory and Hurd’s report. When re-read in the context of a performance of Songe d’automne, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Hurd was the first one who spoke with survivors in person, the first one who heard their memories. And it was Hurd who realized just how uncertain the survivors were, themselves, with the precise details of what they had experienced. It was he who understood how much uncertainty there was about Nearer, My God, To Thee.