Titanic’s string musicians traveled with their own instruments and tuned them anew for each performance. Every time the band gathered, passengers would have heard the string players tuning up prior to the performance.
However, the pianist had to play the instruments provided by the White Star Line. Lucky for Titanic’s pianist, the steamer had only Steinway performance pianos. But even the most gorgeous instruments are at the mercy of the environment in which they stand. This post is devoted to musing on the technical aspects of installing and maintaining Titanic’s pianos, including the impact of environmental conditions like temperature and humidity on them.
Were the pianos bolted to the floor?
Based on Steinway upright models K and R, Titanic’s upright pianos would have weighed 600-700 pounds (272-318 kilos), the Model B grand, 760 pounds (345 kilos). Now imagine installing pianos of this weight on a ship designed to handle high seas on the North Atlantic.
Most large performance pianos are made with rolling casters to make it easier to move them. However, on Titanic, this feature would have been utterly impractical. It is most likely that Titanic’s pianos were bolted to the deck floors to prevent them from moving on rolling seas. This idea would quell any notion that a piano was causally moved out onto the outer Boat Deck as the band played during the sinking.
The idea of anchoring the pianos comes primarily from the reality that a loose piano on a seagoing ship had the potential of being a destructive force. Not only could it have been a danger to passengers and crew, a piano in motion could have damaged the ship and its furniture, not to mention the piano, itself. It would be conceivable that on rough seas, given the right conditions, an upright piano might have even listed and toppled over. Considering all these factors, it only makes sense that Titanic‘s builders would have bolted her pianos to the floor.
How would temperature and humidity have affected the pianos?
Today many professional pianos are kept at an even temperature and humidity with a system known as Dampp-Chaser. This is an integrated system installed inside a piano that humidifies or dehumidifies the piano should the room get too dry or damp, and heats the piano should the room get too cold. When the temperature and humidity within the piano are kept constant the wood is stabilized and the piano stays in tune. No such thing existed in 1912.
Constant flux in temperature and humidity is very hard on any instrument, much more so a piano because it requires such an intensive process to be tuned. The pianos on Titanic that were exposed to the outside air, located in entrances or rooms with outside access, were most vulnerable. These included the Steinway upright located in the First Class Boat Deck Entranceway (at the top of the Grand Staircase), the Steinway upright located in the Second Class Entrance Foyer (C Deck) and the upright in the Third Class General Room (C Deck). Each time a passenger opened one of these deck doors, cold, humid air would have had an impact on the nearby piano.
Three of Titanic’s pianos were located in rooms with more controlled conditions: the Steinway grand located in the First Class Reception Room and the Steinway uprights in both the First and Second Class Dining Saloons (all D Deck). Yet, even in these more protected areas of the ship it seems the heating system on board was unable to keep a constant temperature.
Several passengers mentioned how draughty Titanic was, especially on Sunday, April 14, when the temperature dropped. That evening even the most stylish ladies refrained from wearing their fashionable frocks and donned warm coats for dinner to stave off the cold that permeated the ship.
It is uncertain whether it is possible to answer the questions that arise concerning White Star Line pianos and their response to environmental exposure. How often were they tuned? (With each crossing?) Was Titanic’s pianist capable of performing rudimentary maintenance to tune the pianos en route in the case of a badly out-of-tune string? It would have been unthinkable to perform for a classy clientele on an instrument that had slipped, and such was a likely occurrence on ocean-going vessels like Olympic and Titanic.
If any readers have light to shed on this subject, or questions regarding the complex, fragile relationship of piano vis-à-vis ship, please share!
- How does a piano go out of tune?
- Dampp-Chaser A system to protect your piano
- Entrance image from TITANIC The Ship Magnificent, Beveridge, Klistorner, Hall, Andrews. All rights reserved. Many thanks to the authors for permission.