Where did Titanic’s quintet play during the sinking?

After several days on Carpathia, Titanic’s passengers arrived in New York late in the evening on April 18, 1912. Wireless messages from the ship had been limited, so this was the first time survivors had the chance to tell their stories of the disaster. The press sought interviews (or made them up), and letters written aboard Carpathia to relatives were finally posted.

One of the most compelling stories that emerged was that of the band’s steadfast performance as Titanic slowly sank into North Atlantic waters. To the best of their ability survivors described where they had heard music that night.

Certain themes developed in the passenger reports; some descriptive words and locations were identified by several survivors. To be specific, accounts mentioned hearing music on the A Deck promenade, near the gymnasium, outside on the outer deck, in a lounge and from lifeboats.

It has long been believed that Titanic‘s band moved several times during the sinking, first within the ship and finally outside without the pianist. The body of evidence explored in this post mentions music within a certain focused area of the ship, and leads to surprising conclusions.

Music by its very nature carries beyond the confines of the room in which it is being played. A performance in the First Class Entrance Hall (the Boat Deck entrance at the top of the Grand Staircase) would have been heard down several flights of the staircase. The open design of the staircase allowed the music to spill down to A Deck, B Deck, and perhaps even lower, not only inside the ship, but also on the promenade decks outside. A performance in the First Class Entrance Hall would also have been heard through the deck doors, outside on the Boat Deck where lifeboats were prepared, loaded and lowered, or outside on the starboard side beside the gymnasium.

First Class Entrance Hall. Titanic‘s musicians performed in this location.
Note the piano and musician’s stand visible near the windows to port.

Normally when the quintet performed at the top of the Grand Staircase the ornate dome overhead glowed with midday light. But this performance was different. In the early morning of April 15, 1912 it was a star-studded sky beyond the glass, and the band read their music by electric light.

One of the bandsmen held up this performance, rushing from the Second Class entranceway along the Boat Deck, which was presently deserted. He was spotted by Second Class passenger Lawrence Beesley. The cellist’s presence there suggests his destination was the forward First Class Entrance Hall, as this was the only location on that level of the ship with a piano where the five-piece band regularly played.

Lawrence Beesley, The Loss of the S. S. “Titanic”, June, 1912:

“Soon after the men had left the starboard side, I saw a bandsman -the ‘cellist- come round the vestibule corner from the staircase entrance and run down the now deserted starboard deck, his ‘cello trailing behind him, the spike dragging along the floor. This must have been about 12.40 a. m.”

When lifeboat 6 was lowered from the port side forward at about 12:55am, Margaret Brown, who was in the lifeboat, heard the band’s music. Second Officer Charles Lightoller assisted with the loading and lowering.

Margaret Brown, Newport Herald, May 28-29, 1912:

“While being lowered we were conscious of strains of music being wafted on the night air.”

Charles Lightoller, Second Officer:

“I could hear the band playing a cheery sort of music. I don’t like jazz music as a rule, but I was glad to hear it that night. I think it helped us all.”

Did the Band Move Outside?

Did the band eventually move outside? Second Class passenger Lawrence Beesley had not himself seen or heard the band, but included in his book information related from another survivor.

Lawrence Beesley, The Loss of the S. S. “Titanic”, June, 1912:

“It is related that on the night of the disaster, right up to the time of the Titanic’s sinking…the band grouped outside the gymnasium doors played with such supreme courage in face of the water which rose foot by foot before their eyes….”

It is easy to fully accept Beelsley’s account as survivor testimony. But Beesley’s statement seems to be an example of second hand misinterpretation. His friend, who had likely been standing outside the gymnasium at the Boat Deck level, would have said he had heard the band there. Strains of music from a performance at the top of the Grand Staircase inside the ship at the Boat Deck level would have been heard outside the gymnasium. The subtlety was lost on Beasley, and then his interpretation has been cited as evidence that the band moved outside.

Piano or No Piano

Logistically, it would have been difficult for the band to move outside. The upright piano was bolted to the ship. Even if it were mobile, it would have been next to impossible to move the bulk of it over the raised threshold onto an outer deck, and surely such activity would have been noticed and mentioned by eyewitness survivors.

May Futrelle heard the band playing with the piano very late in the sinking, at the time lifeboat 4 was put off at 1:55am. If the band was still playing with the piano at that time, it is improbable that they would have taken time away from performing to move everything they needed outside the ship — chairs, stands, their stash of music and instruments.

The band’s sheet music was arranged to include piano. Although it has been assumed that the string players could easily have moved outside and adapted without the piano, classically trained musicians in 1912 who normally performed with music sheets (as Titanic‘s musicians did without question), were not trained to know how to improvise or “jam” together — it simply wasn’t done.

Cold and Dark

Other logistical considerations: It is very difficult for musicians to perform outside in freezing temperatures as fingers need agility, and therefore ample circulation, to perform musical instruments. Most musicians loathe exposing their instruments to cold outdoor air for any amount of time. In April, 2012 on a Titanic centennial cruise, musicians played on the outer deck of a ship in an attempt to replicate the band’s final performance. In the cold temperatures on that night the stringed instruments very quickly, and frequently, went out of tune, proving it was very unlikely the musicians performed outside in 1912 on a much colder night.

Movie scenes shot in daylight on warm sets, acted by musicians
pretending to perform from memory.

Photo from the 1958 film
A Night To Remember.

Also, the lighting on the outer deck would not have been sufficient for the musicians to read their parts. Especially at the forward part of the ship, outside lighting was kept dim to aid visibility at night from the bridge. Furthermore, Titanic sank on a moonless night.

On Titanic, the deck would have been freezing and dark, and musicians would not have been able to read their music sheets.

Washington Dodge, The Loss of the Titanic, 1912:

“We were in semi-darkness on the boat deck, and owing to the immense length and breadth of the vessel…[we] only knew what was going on about us within a radius of possibly forty feet.”

Margaretta Spedden, letter written on board Carpathia, April 18, 1912:

“The ship struck the iceberg at 11.55 Sunday night and we immediately got partly dressed and went up on deck but it was so dark that we couldn’t see anything except ice on the forward deck and that the ship was listing a little bit, so we decided to go down and finish dressing.”

If the outer deck was too cold for fingers to function and dark for eyes to see written music, it is best to look to the evidence in favour of the band remaining inside the ship to the end.

‘Lounge’ is a word passengers sometimes used to describe where they heard the band play, and it is rather difficult to interpret. However, the following account, related from some of the last passengers to have left Titanic, confirms that the orchestra remained inside until the end. Because the last lifeboats left Titanic from the Boat Deck forward, it can be believed that this account referred to a performance in this location.

William Sloper, letter written on board Carpathia, April 18, 1912:

“Some of the rescued people who were the last to leave the ship told me that when they left the orchestra was playing in the “Lounge,” and that it was brave but ghastly to hear them.”

Survivors heard the band’s music from their lifeboats but no one suggests that the band was playing in a lifeboat. Why, then, is it interpreted that music heard outside on the ship’s deck originated outside?

Perhaps it was because survivors had said they heard the band’s music from lifeboats that the press and historians have pictured the band performing outside. One only has to watch movies to see this played out in dramatic scenes. One could ask — if music was heard that clearly from the distance of the lifeboats, why couldn’t Beesley hear it just aft on the deserted starboard deck? The music heard from lifeboats would have been quite faint, much fainter than depicted in the movies, perceptible only to passengers in the closest lifeboats and not clear enough for them to accurately name any of the tunes.

Yet, several newspapers printed survivor accounts that specifically said the band was seen on the outer deck. Even Harold Bride’s account printed in the New York Times says, “…the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing “Autumn.” In an otherwise believable telling, it is possible a reporter inadvertently substituted seeing for hearing (“…the last I heard of the band…”).

Any survivor account that makes reference to seeing musicians performing outside should be handled very carefully, especially if printed in a newspaper. That information was filtered through a writer who had not actually been on Titanic or experienced the event first-hand. Newspaper writers interpreted survivor accounts, and if a survivor said they heard music in a certain place on the ship, the reporter would assume it meant the band had also been seen performing there.

In order to understand how several passenger accounts might have referred to the same performance, one should keep the idea in mind that music carries beyond the place of performance. Titanic was designed to maximize the band’s performances, and all its venues were designed to allow strains of the music to carry.

If it is true that these musicians performed exclusively at the top of the Grand Staircase, isn’t it slightly comforting to think they remained together, with their pianist — inclusive — until the end?

The topic of ‘where’ the band performed on the night of the sinking will be continued in the next two posts. There is additional evidence that seems to focus on a second performance venue, which suggests the quintet and trio performed separately that night.

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35 thoughts on “Where did Titanic’s quintet play during the sinking?

  1. Just a note to my readers, which I will remove later. I'm going to need to take about a week's break from blogging to fulfill a professional commitment. In the meantime I'll peck away at my next post and you will see it sometime around the end of April or the beginning of May. Thanks for sharing my interest on Titanic's music!Rebekah


  2. Yes, this is my plan. The main reason I didn't originally write about the music heard the night of the sinking (back in January when I was covering the songbook) was because I thought people already had a general knowledge of this. I will try to search this out, but from what I have seen, survivors didn't remember many titles.


  3. #174 In The Shadows, #280 Alexander's Ragtime Band,#137 Songe D' Autumn, was Star Spangled Banner in the book? # 202 Barcarolle # 130 Wedding Dance, Nearer My Gd to thee, Abide With Me, Lead Kindly Light, O God our help in ages past, Autumn…any more that you want?


  4. Band Lover, I've seen the quote from which \”Lead Kindly Light\” comes from. There is also \”Oh You Beautiful Doll\” – although it wasn't in the WSL songbook and I suspect it may have been played in Third Class by someone who had their own sheet music. I realize these song names are all being tossed around, but do you know where to find the sources? Where does this information originate? R


  5. The problem with your theory about the band playing the whole night in the entrance hall, is this, that, as far as I know, two bodies of bandsmen were found in the water. If they were in the room til the end, it is almost impossible, I think, that their bodies could get out of the ship with water. The solution could be, that when the water reached them so they could not play anymore, they started to find their way to escape. Or, the stairs, which were(was?, sorry, in my language stairs are plural) \”splited\” out, I mean… extracted.. out of staircase (that's a fact), could liberate corpses, and the bodies could return to the surface, but only if this happened not so deep as the ship was going down to the bottom, and if musicians had life-belts on.Anyway, Rebekah, your work makes a great contribution to our knowledge about Titanic and the catastrophe. Thank you for that.


  6. I read such qoutes… and I almost can imagine this… “men were sitting on A deck, smoking cigarettes and tapping time with their feet to the music of the band. […] The music was ragtime just then.” the sound of strings, playing ragtime neatly and lively, but still stately, for example \”Alexander's Ragtime Band\”, \”Ginger\” or \”The Baby Parade\”… \”The band at that time was playing a waltz tune.\” I can see in my mind the staircase, lighted very well by copious electric light above the dome, the passangers with lifebelts on going up and down the tilted stairs, and the sound of waltz from \”Miss Hook of Holland\”, or \”The Druid's Prayer\”… Only a imagination but…


  7. Also, I forgot about one thing. In Daniel Allen Butler's \”Unsinkable\”, it says that during sinking bandsmen were playing: \”Alexander's Ragtime Band\”, \”Oh You Beautiful Doll\”, \”A Little Love, A Little Kiss\”, and \”Moonlight Bay\”. Only first appears in the songbook, as we know.


  8. The topic is multifaceted and you may remember in past posts that Barkworth said the bandsmen had thrown down their instruments – except for Hartley, who packed his away in the instrument case, and had about three minutes to run out onto the deck. We know Hartley, Hume and Clarke were wearing lifebelts for sure as their bodies were found. It is possible some bandsmen were trapped in the sinking vessel, or that their bodies on the surface were found but buried at sea, or never found at all.


  9. I'd love to compile a list of music identified from the voyage, so any help is appreciated. I know some were identified by survivors, either in their writings or in newspapers, so if you ever come across the sources, please let me know those as well.


  10. Rebekah,Yes, there is source. All there is written is: \”Beesley, 83-84\”.In Butler's book, there is also written that on the first day of voyage, the orchestra \”in first class dining room\” (I suspect, that it was about the reception room) played some selection from The Chocolate Soldier. I'm not sure about the source. For the few paragraphs, which the note about this in one of these, there are many sources. These are:\”Southampton Evening Echo\”, June 21th 1967; \”Southampton Times\”, April 11th 1912; \”Liberty Magazine\”, April 23rd 1932; Logan Marshall ed. \”The Sinking of the Titanic\”, 32; Hutchings, 21; Lightoller, 220; Lynch, 33-35; \”The Night Lives On\”, 36-37; \”Triumph and Tragedy\”, 76-77; Wade, 242-244;In these paragraphs there is written about Titanic sailing out of the harbor, turning on the machines, Bowyer the pilot(?), the SS New York incident, Vulcan the tugboat, and some talk of Mrs Harris with some stranger about the event with New York. So I think that some sources we can delate, for example, Lightoller, Soputhampton Times form april 11th (too soon, on this day it has no meaning what the orchestra played).


  11. Were the sources you gave specifically for music selections? For example, May Futrelle noted the band playing 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' the night of the sinking, and her account appeared in the Seattle Daily Times, April 22 & 23, 1912. I would feel more comfortable listing music that had been played on the voyage and the night of the sinking if I know the original survivor's name and the original source of the information. If there is no survivor name or original source known for a particular number, then it would be listed in a separate category. That way each title can be weighed based on how much information can be gathered on it. On my blog I can't list music based on hearsay.


  12. Rebekah, I'm not sure about what you want from me. In Butler's book there is written:\”In first class dining room the orchestra was playing the aria from Chocolate Soldier the musical. In the same time, Bowyer was speeding up the ship…\” /in translation from polish version of the book/I can't specify the source of this, because Butler gives a bunch of sources for a few parahraphs, and this statement is in one of these, and Butler doesn't specify which source is for what information.


  13. Your information is good, and I appreciate being steered in that direction. I'll try to hunt down the Chocolate soldier one. This is one topic I haven't looked into yet, only read about it briefly, so any help is appreciated, and your information is exactly what I'm looking for. Thanks!


  14. Band Lover, it could be an other songlist, because of in the one I have (and Rebekah's too, the same) Moonlight Bay is absent. BUT, I also know, that through the years the configuration of numbers in White Star Line Song Book was the same, and ragtime pieces were always in the end. So it's impossible to Moonlight Bay be #67 in any White Star Line songbook. It should be rather something above #200 or #300.


  15. The WSL replica I have has 341 specific listings, but that is a deceiving number. There were several parts of the book that suggested music categories without actually listing out all the titles, so the band would have had access to sheets for many more than 341 pieces of music. For example:36 Madam Butterfly … PucciniMadam Butterfly is not the name of a piece, but an entire opera, so this is technically not a \”number\” in the strict sense. Because operas are listed in the category \”Selections\” I suspect that the band had access to several selections/numbers from each opera listed, and there were 65 operas in the WSL songbook. So if the band could play 3-4 numbers from each opera, then there could possibly have been 180-260 arrangements just in this category alone. Then you have all the other categories that suggested multiple titles in each one:Music in these categories was UNLISTED, UNNUMBERED:National Anthems (of all nations)Hymns (of all nations)Selections from Messiah and seven other sacred oratoriosGung'l waltzesStrauss waltzesWaldteufel waltzesWaldteufel PolkasWhen I estimated that the band may have had sheet arrangements for as many as 500 individual numbers, it was actually a conservative estimate. I think it is amazing that the band could possibly have had between 500-700 numbers they could perform at sight, possibly without ever rehearsing. I have just updated some of my earliest posts, one being whether the band played by memory. It becomes clearer that they performed by reading, just from the sheer volume of music they could be called on to play. R


  16. What about the music played during sinking… Passengers remember orchestra playing ragtime. Many passangers stated that. That mean that orchestra played more ragtime than during normal concerts onboard. Musicians played something about 2 hours. That gives enough time for 20 songs or more. There are about 60 titles in \”Marches and cakewalks\” in WSL songlist. Half of this are ragtimes, half the regular marches. So we have 30 ragtimes, and time for 20, 25 songs. Assuming, that orchestra played only ragtime, it gives enough time to be sure that most of ragtime pieces from songbook were played that night. But surely orchestra played also another pieces of music, like waltzes. That's only my mathematical consideration.Also, it during entire voyage, probably every one title from songbook was played at least once (considering two orchestras).


  17. Yes, this is a good analysis. Do you know whether you can find all the titles from the last section on YouTube? I have yet to search out and try to listen to all of these titles to make sure they fit the Ragtime style. I've wondered whether \”Ragtime\” as used by Titanic's passengers wasn't just a generic term, a precursor to the term \”popular\”, to describe upbeat music.


  18. That can be… We don't know what they understood by term \”ragtime\”, also, any one could understand it and use it in a different way.I was searching some recordings on youtube of ragtime pieces from songbook, some are there, some are not. I remember that I found Ginger, Red pepper, red wing, Policeman's Holiday… and of course Alexander's and Mosquitos Parade… that's from first numbers in Cakewalks section… I have also a midi recording of Baby Parade (and Druid's Prayer Waltz) stylised to strings, very well done, as a midi.


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