Titanic’s final number: Concise summary

In 1957 a man named Fred Valance sat down and read Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. In it Lord had attempted to pin down the identity of Harold Bride’s ‘Autumn.’ Valance wrote several lengthy letters to Lord in response. In 1912 he had been bandleader on the Laconia and he recalled how popular Songe d’automne had been that year. In his own opinion the mournful opening of this number could have been mistaken for a hymn tune and the jerky part, for ragtime. After Titanic sank there had been general agreement amongst the musicians Valance knew that Bride had been referring to Songe d’automne, Dream of Autumn, by Archibald Joyce.

Period sheet music cover for Songe d’automne

By special request this post will provide my readers with a concise overview of my thoughts on Titanic‘s last number, with links to the blog entries that offer more detail (the links appear in orange type). To take it one step further than Valance’s idea that Songe d’automne could be mistaken for a hymn, my theory compares its melody and rhythm to Nearer, My God, To Thee, with surprising results.

I began with the same questions Lord and other historians have asked:
What did Bride mean by ‘Autumn?’
Which version of Nearer, My God, To Thee was heard?
Why did some survivors from lifeboats hear Nearer, My God, To Thee as Titanic’s final number and survivors who went down with the ship not hear it too?

For a background on the work of Walter Lord and other historians: Titanic’s final number: A century of debate

To explain how survivors in lifeboats heard music from the ship:
As evidence shows that the musicians performed inside the ship to the end, was it possible for survivors in lifeboats to hear anything from across the water? If so, how clearly? My theory does account for survivors hearing faint and fragmentary strains of music. However, complete melodies would not have been heard from across the water.
Titanic’s final number: Grand Acoustics
Titanic’s final number: Cello penetrates other sounds

On the accuracy of survivor accounts in the press:
It is possible that reporters attributed to survivors untrue or exaggerated statements regarding the bravery of the band as they played the hymn. It is also possible that survivors got caught up in the emotion of the aftermath of the tragedy and made up that they had heard the hymn. Or, possible that their memories began to recall that they had heard the hymn even though they had not.

Titanic and the Science of Memory
Titanic’s final number: Logistics, proximity and a good ear
Titanic’s final number: Paddy Dillon’s Testimony

On Nearer, My God, To Thee:
There were two survivors who initially identified the hymn by name to a reporter, Carlos Hurd. He collected accounts on Carpathia, the ship that carried Titanic’s survivors back to New York.

Carpathia accounts: Nearer, My God, To Thee
Carlos Hurd: Nearer, My God, To Thee
Titanic: Who heard Nearer, My God, To Thee?

Focus on Nearer, My God, To Thee in the press:
But once the information was printed in the press it gained wide acceptance. This could have been because survivors and the public at large needed something positive to cling to.

Press Reports: Nearer, My God, To Thee
Titanic’s final number: The healing power of music

On survivors who remained on the ship to the last:
Over time the hymn gained the support of moviemakers and became the public favorite to represent Titanic‘s final number. But historians must take into account the statements of survivors who remained on board the ship to the end, who heard the music of the band up close. These survivors did not hear Nearer, My God, To Thee just before Titanic sank, but ‘Autumn,’ a waltz, or music of the band which was not identified other than to confirm it was not a hymn.

Harold Bride New York Times: ‘Autumn’
Barkworth: Titanic’s last waltz
Gracie: The truth about Titanic’s last number

Three Note Theory:
Both Nearer, My God, To Thee and Songe d’automne were heard moments before Titanic sank, but there could not have been two final numbers. My theory uses music – notes and rhythms – to show that both pieces begin with identical melodies. My theory proposes that both groups of survivors – in lifeboats and on board – heard the same number, but interpreted it differently.

Titanic’s final number: Three Note Theory
Carlos Hurd: Nearer, My God, To Thee


Secondary Theory: Hartley Solo Theory
Several years ago when I began to research music for my Titanic piano books I was curious about the questions surrounding Titanic’s final number. I included both Songe d’automne and Nearer, My God, To Thee in my arrangements. But with the captions for the hymn I was careful to say only that survivors from lifeboats had claimed they had heard it. That much is true.

I went through a spell when I believed that Songe d’automne must have been the final number played by the complete band and that Wallace Hartley had then played Nearer, My God, To Thee as a solo after the musicians disbanded. Even after I had changed my mind, I still thought this theory might be interesting to consider, so I included it in my blog. I added several posts to explain why I had changed my mind:

On the circumstances Titanic’s band could have played Nearer, My God, To Thee:
Movies have depicted Titanic‘s band picking up their instruments and playing the hymn by ear or by improvisation. In 1912 classically trained musicians were not taught the art of improvisation, which makes it unlikely they could have played together as an ensemble without sheets. If Hartley had the melody memorized it would have been possible for him to play a solo.

Sheets, hymnbook or by heart? – Nearer, My God, To Thee
Titanic’s final number: Hartley Solo Theory

Is there evidence against the hymn?
There is a violin that may have been Wallace Hartley’s instrument on Titanic. If he had taken the time to pack it in his instrument case it is unlikely he would also have had the time to play a solo of the hymn. Also, the only man to claim to have heard a violin solo of the hymn may not have given the most accurate account.

Titanic’s final number: Hartley’s violin
Titanic’s final number: Paddy Dillon’s Testimony


Additional words on Titanic‘s final number:
By survivor accounts alone, it would seem as though there is much more anecdotal evidence to support Nearer, My God, To Thee. However, this cannot be a numbers game. Statistically there were more survivors in lifeboats than stayed on the ship to the end. So to have even one witness from the ship who heard the band’s final piece, identified it by name and then survived, is actually quite a valuable piece of evidence.

How appropriate would Nearer, My God, To Thee have been as a final number?

A romantic illustration of Titanic‘s last moments

According to one survivor, Colonel Archibald Gracie (a stout Christian), the hymn would have been a tactless warning of immediate death and would have caused a panic. While the idea of the hymn gave comfort to those in lifeboats, to the public, and is dramatically poignant in a movie scene, to those who were in a state of high alert on board the sinking ship trying to save themselves, the hymn would have sounded like a foregone conclusion of death. As the passengers did not want to give in to death so easily, the hymn would not have been well received on board.

How appropriate was Songe d’automne as the final number?
Survivor accounts indicate that the band played for as long as they possibly could. At the British Inquiry survivor Steward Brown was asked how long he had heard the band play. Brown replied, “I do not remember hearing them stop.” Logistically the band did not keep playing until water engulfed them, but his words testify that the band did play as long as was humanly possible. Had Titanic lasted longer, they may have played ‘Autumn’ and then kept going with more numbers.

It is possible the band didn’t know that Songe d’automne was their final number. Therefore, it is moot to ask how appropriate it was as Titanic‘s musical postlude. That being said, it certainly does have a tragic quality, infused by the minor key signature and rather sombre introduction. Songe d’automne was simply a popular number played by Titanic‘s dedicated band, which they began to play at around the time the last lifeboat was lowered, and continued to play until it became logistically impossible. While all others on board were fighting a grim destiny, Titanic‘s band played and played on.

11 thoughts on “Titanic’s final number: Concise summary

  1. Thanks for your interest! Because of my readers a series that was supposed to be only seven posts long expanded into many more. I was able to dig deeper into the subject, and I've enjoyed the process.


  2. Rebekah, I apologise for sending this message on your Notekids site, but for some reason I am not able to join or follow your Titanic blog site (my computer's fault, not yours!). I just wanted to thank you for your deeply engrossing blogs on the band on the Titanic. Your theories and expanations are clearly explained. I always found the notion that the band played on til the bitter end highly problematic, although the romantic notion that they manfully continued whilst the icy water bubbled up around them is appealing. Aside from the physical impossibility of playing in those condition, and as you usefully pointed out, Wallace H must have had time to strap on his music case at the very least, a tricky thing to do in the uproar one would think. I have one question that you may have already answered in one of your blogs. Why might Wallace H or the band have chosen Songe d'Autumne as their final number? I lean towards your theories that this was the final piece, and I do feel that it has a sort of melancholy fateful defiance (if that isn't a contradiction in terms) that would suit the moment. And of course, they may not have realised it would in fact be the final number, especially if they were playing inside. But do you have any other thoughts? Once again, many thanks for your interesting and informative blogs. Feel free to repost this message. – Jen


  3. Jen, Thanks for your long and thought-provoking note. You really did search for a way to contact me if you found my contact page on my Notekidds website! You are right, many of the stories that surround Titanic's band are tragically appealing, and are perpetuated by people who like to make others gasp. The idea that the band had memorized their entire repertoire, the idea that they had played until water swept them away – I don't know where these ideas originate, but certainly not from reliable sources. Sometimes I feel like a killjoy who is taking away everyone's naive trust in the good old stories. I'm uneasy about how people will accept my theories. The truth is that the story of Titanic's band playing hymns helped a lot of people cope with the tragedy. I don't want to take away from that. I feel my post above may answer some of your questions regarding Songe d'automne. No one expected Titanic to sink at all, or that quickly. The bandsmen could have seen the water rising up the levels of the Grand Staircase – a horrific thought – and it is possible that the water that washed up over the bow and flooded from the forward officers' quarters reached them before it rose up the staircase, signalling to them that the ship had settled further than thought. The reason I suggest this is because Barkworth was able to visit his cabin on A Deck at around the time water flooded the Marconi room, at the Boat Deck level. It is possible that the Band thought they had more time (based on the water level down the stairs) when they began Songe d'automne, and that they did not know it would be their final number. Barkworth's account suggests that the band abruptly abandoned their performance in the middle of the music. Thanks for your questions – please stay in touch!Rebekah


  4. Thanks for re-posting, and for your extremely thoughtful response. This will now spin off into some personal observations. I wonder why it is that I want Songe d'Autumne to be the final tune, above NMGTT. Is it because I like Harold Bride so much, his bravery and devotion to duty, and practical, useful duty at that, and so I want him to be to be right. But I have seen comments elsewhere that he contradicted himself several times in his testimonies at the two inquiries, so is he really so reliable? Is it because I much prefer the melody of Songe d'Autumne over any setting of NMGTT? Propior Deo was the setting I used to sing at church as a child, and always found it dull, although maybe that was due to the dragging tempo the organist used.Is it because there are several settings of the hymn, and it's hard to imagine all band members being able to pick up and play any given setting at a moment's notice, a point you've made. I completely reject the notion that they huddled round small print hymn books, on a slanting deck, in freezing conditions, with death around the corner (it also makes me laugh (ruefully) when film versions have the band all launching seamlessly and tunefully in, with just a significant look or a few bars from Wallace H. Telepathy? I don't play an instrument but I have been a chorister, and you need a little more guidance to know what you are about to perform!). Is it because I have a deeply secular outlook, and had I been on Titanic, the last thing I would want to hear as I fought for survival was a hymn (or so I like to think)? Is it because that particular hymn does strike me as tactless in the circumstances, as I think Colonel Gracie later commented? Is it because it seems so hopelessly sentimental? If, as we have both surmised, the band did not know which was to be the final number, then NMGTT seems a little too convenient. And the final question – why does it matter so much? It does matter, not just the identity of the final number, but all other details about the band that night. It is of course endlessly fascinating to think about and mull over. But it goes further than that. Why? I'd be interested to hear your ideas. – Jen


  5. Very profound writing! Do you have quotations where Bride contradicted himself, or just \”someone said\” he contradicted himself? I've heard the same thing and I would like to see for myself. Whether he simply left it out or actually told a different story would be my question. He had claimed Autumn, but no one else did, and everyone made so much of Nearer, My God, To Thee, that he probably believed they were right. Did he claim Autumn was the final piece, or did he simply say he had heard it at a certain time? In my mind Bride simply told his story and then from the lack of reinforcement from others, or feedback from the public regarding it, the music became insignificant to his experience when he was asked to retell his story before the inquiry.Colonel Archibald Gracey was a devout Christian, and he said the last thing he would have wanted to hear as Titanic sank was Nearer, My God, To Thee. Tactless, sentimental, too convenient. All ring true. For some reason it does matter. I'm not sure whether I can explain why. The moment I realized both tunes began with the same melody was while I was attempting to tell this part of Titanic's story for a magazine article. How was I going to include Nearer, My God, To Thee in the story without actually saying whether the band had or had not played it? I ended up simply saying that survivors in lifeboats had said they heard it when picked up by Carpathia – and that much is true. But then I wanted to know if there was a musical explanation for two survivor groups in two different places hearing two different things at the exact same time. Voila – the three note connection. I can't explain why I feel compelled to write about this, or why I care so much. Well, honestly, I don't expect many people to believe my theories. If people want their hearts to go on believing the band played Nearer, My God, To Thee, it is fine with me. In my own inner being I feel content believing the music itself holds the answer. Rebekah


  6. Comment from Jennifer: To clarify, the comments I've seen saying that Bride contradicted himself were referring to his testimonies in general, not the question of the final number. According to these comments, and to extracts of his testimonies I have read, he seemed unable to give a clear and consistent account of events after he was swept off Titanic (was there breathable air under the collapsible or not, for example. Titanic Inquiry Project is the go-to website for transcripts of the inquiries, as I'm sure you know). But then again, which of us could give a coherent account of such an experience?As a side note, the question of how reliable each of the testimonies is is endlessly facinating. For example, I have an affection for Charles Joughin, based largely on the details of his recollections. According to his account, as the ship went down, he transferred his watch to his pocket, tightened his straps of his lifebelt, and rode down the side of the ship as if it was an 'elevator', not even getting his hair wet. How specific! How human! How understated! And therefore, how convincing! But did he really stay alive in those freezing waters for two hours or more, dry hair or not? Highly unlikely (and let's not begin on the so-called insulating effects of alcohol). Either he was mistaken, or lying. One must admit that some of the survivors were simply mistaken, or exaggerated and embroidered without realising (perhaps influenced by other testimonies), or outright lied. And of course as you point out, witnesses in different locations would have entirely different but entirely valid experiences of the same event. From one perspective, NMGTT, from another Songe d'Automne. Both may have been played, and both heard at different moments (I tend to reject Wallace Hartley's 'Solo' theory – a single violin can be piercing, but above the screams of hundreds of people and the groans of the stricken ship?). Or one may have been mistaken for another – your three note theory. – Jen


  7. Comment from Jennifer Part II:But to return to the question of why the identity of the final number matters. On reflection, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, a horrific disaster, on such a scale, unfolding over hours, with a built-in live soundtrack? What a thought. That's not meant to be facetious. The very idea of the band playing at all, let alone on and on until (nearly) the end, is hard to grasp. Would you? Would I? Even if they didn't fully realise until close to the end that Titanic really would go down, it remains a strange and moving thought. Furthermore, it wasn't just some of Titanic's musicians, it was all of them, the quintet and trio together. Again we must take it on witness testimony that all eight played together from first to last, but the fact remains that they were all lost.Then there's the sheer surrealism of the last moments. I am struck by the thought of the dogs of Titanic, having been let out of the kennels, running up and down deck. Dogs, death, water, waltzes. A peculiar mix.And consider – if they were dancers or jugglers or magicians hired to entertain the passengers, would they have even begun performing, let alone continued? No. Music is unique in its effects, as art, as entertainment, and as part of the aural experience of everyday life. It can be both background jingle and also speak deeply to the most interior spaces, simultaneously. Noel Coward was not wrong when he wrote 'strange how potent cheap music is'. And what happened, exactly, to the band after they stopped playing their final number? Did they complete it, or were they cut off? Were they exhausted, or possibly exhilerated, as they put down their instruments? And then what?The climax of this unprecedented, unrepeated, unrepeatable performance is a mystery that shines a shifting, uncertain light on questions not just concerning the Titanic, but of life and death, art and humanity. On that feverish note, I think I've come to the end of my musings on this topic! Many thanks for the opportunity to express them, and thanks once again for both your blogs and responses to my questions and thoughts. – Jen


  8. The matter of the accuracy of survivor accounts:Whenever an account was filtered through a newspaper reporter, written up, it needs to be read carefully. They were in the business of selling newspapers. Reporters have a tough gig of writing daily and coming up with a story or headline that will grab readers – I experience that with my blog. However, with reporters there was less motivation to search out accuracy. Too time consuming. That is evident today with a quick story about Nearer, My God, To Thee and the band's last number. A reporter can whip up a TV news spot with little research and be assured that viewers will watch. It would be too cumbersome for the reporter to dig deeper into the story to find out whether it is accurate or not. With my blog I'm attempting to apply a fresh look at the band and the music and I'm willing to put in the time to read the fine print of accounts, compare them to each other, superimpose these accounts into time and place on the ship. I want a more complete picture, and if you want something done, I guess you have to do it yourself!


  9. Jen, I have truly enjoyed reading your responses to my posts – you are a good writer and express your feelings well. What profound thoughts! Feel free to comment on any of the posts! Take care, Rebekah


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