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.
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.
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.
- Did Titanic’s bands play together as Titanic sank?
- Evidence that Titanic’s bands played separately
- Titanic’s final number: Grand acoustics