In the aftermath of the sinking of Titanic the deeds of the orchestra were well publicized. So much was said about the final piece heard moments before the Titanic sank that the focus of the press and public fell on Wallace Hartley, who had reportedly led the band in the final number. The survivors testified that they had heard Nearer, My God, To Thee. Hartley’s family confirmed that it was his favorite hymn. With this information the press had fodder for many articles about the band and focused on Hartley, who became known as Titanic’s bandmaster.
Had Titanic arrived safely in New York, no one would ever have known the band members’ names. The passengers on board knew them by uniform, not by name. There was a professional and a social distance between the band and Titanic’s passengers.
This was evidenced in letters written by Second Class passenger Kate Buss, who had developed a fondness for the five-piece band’s cellist. She wrote of him in a letter, “The Cello Man is a favorite of mine. Every time he finishes a piece he looks at me and we smile.” Though she was flirtatiously fond of him, and even spoke to him to make a request, she knew him not by name.
Every ship up to the Olympic Class liners would have had one ensemble and one bandmaster who led the band. (Indeed, is it known whether any ship since has had two bands?) So the public was used to the idea of a ship having one bandmaster. There is no question that Wallace Hartley was a bandmaster on Titanic. But on Titanic there was a second ensemble, a feature that was sure to impress the elite that sailed. Would this not mean that the second band also needed a bandmaster?
To answer this question the role of the leader must be understood. On Titanic it has been said the bandmaster’s job was to tell performers when or where they would play. Perhaps he did at the beginning of the voyage, but as the bands both followed a regular schedule, each day on board predictably followed the same pattern as the last. Performance venues and times were all predetermined by a schedule that repeated each day like clockwork, even on Sunday. It has also been said he was responsible for dividing tips, but he wasn’t paid more than the other bandsmen because of scheduling notices or money tallying. He was paid more because of his musical responsibilities.
It has been unclear whether Titanic’s musicians rehearsed (there was no private space with a piano for rehearsals), and so it was unconfirmed whether the bandleader’s position required him to lead rehearsals. Recently it has come to light that Second Class passenger Edwina Troutt mentioned that her cabin had been near the musicians’, and that she heard them practicing there (so, without a piano).*
One of the bandmaster’s most important jobs was to choose music for each “set.” The set numbers were chosen ahead of each performance, and would comprise the entire performance if the audience made no requests.
The bandleader tried to anticipate what his audience would like to hear, and chose which pieces would sound good in succession. Like a good DJ, he wanted to please the crowd. He might repeat a few favorites from previous sets, or sprinkle in new choices for variety. Prior to performing, each musician may have organized his sheet music in order so transitions between numbers would go smoothly. Or perhaps the bandleader simply had a master sheet with the order of numbers on it so the bandsmen could turn quickly to the numbered sheets of music.
The bandleader was also the public face of the band. Irving Berlin’s song, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which was very popular in 1912, describes the scene of public and band interaction. In one verse a gentleman invites his lady friend to make a request of the bandleader:
Sheet music cover for
Alexander’s Ragtime Band
Come on along, come on along,
Let me take you by the hand.
Up to the man, up to the man,
Who’s the leader of the band!
And if you care to hear the Swanee River played in ragtime,
Come on and hear, come on and hear,
Alexander’s Ragtime Band!
It was understood in performance settings like those on Titanic that the audience was invited to make requests. For that purpose each passenger in First and Second Class carried the White Star Line MUSIC songbook, which listed numbered titles. If a passenger noticed a title she recognized and wanted to hear, all she had to do was go up to the bandleader between pieces and make her request.
First Class Passenger Helen Churchill Candee described the making of requests in the First Class Reception Room on D Deck one evening.
Helen Churchill Candee, Collier’s Weekly, May 4, 1912:
“…everyone asked of it some favorite hit. The prettiest girl asked for dance music, and clicked her satin heels and swayed her adolescent arms to the rhythm. He of the Two who had walked the deck asked for Dvořák, while she asked for Puccini, and both got their liking, for the orchestra was adroit and willing.”
The public role meant the man who led the band was chosen partly for his “people skills.” He was a kind of master of ceremonies, without a lot of speaking.
In small ensembles like those on Titanic, ones that do not require dedicated conductors, the bandleader (first violin) customarily takes the role of conductor. He does not use a baton (the little white stick) but simple gestures of the body, and perhaps at times exaggerated phrasing of the bow.
This body language conducts the ensemble so all the musicians begin together at the same tempo. Rock musicians sometimes count out loud with numbers (a-1, a-2, a-1-2-3-4) but classically trained musicians use much more subtle methods. Prior to beat one the first violin gives a full-body upbeat gesture. Depending on the speed of this gesture, the other musicians automatically know how fast or slow the piece will be, and they also know the precise moment to begin. Or, if there were ever a change of tempo, the first violin would make eye contact with the others and sway his body slightly to measure out the change.
The following YouTube video of I Salonisti, the ensemble which performed in James Cameron’s 1997 movie Titanic, is perfect for demonstrating the role of the first violin as leader. The first violinist is standing closest to the audience. Even though the second violinist has more natural body movement, the movements of the first violinist are directed towards the other musicians for the purpose of musical timing within the performance.
At the end of the piece in the case of a sustained note he gives a little thrust for the cut-off, or quick gestures to lead off pizzicato (plucked) endings so the musicians sound together. It is the leader who takes the responsibility of holding the ensemble together and the others look to him to fill this role, especially at important moments in the music.
It would have been impossible for Wallace Hartley to be the only bandleader on Titanic. There were so many parts of the job he would not have been able to perform for both ensembles, as the quintet and trio performed concurrently in two parts of the ship. From a distance he would not have been able to converse with both audiences, handle requests, or gesture to both ensembles when to begin or end a piece.
Hartley may have been able to choose the set pieces of both ensembles, and perhaps he did. But as each crowd was distinctly different, it was likely that this role was also divided with the other bandleader who would have better known his own audience.
If the role of bandleader was only to administer the band, then only one would have sufficed on Titanic. But in musical terms, a bandleader is a pivotal person within any ensemble during performances. Because of this, both the quintet and trio required a leader.
*Thanks to Don Lynch for this information. It came from a personal conversation with Edwina Troutt.
- Which musicians played in Titanic’s trio?
- Who was bandleader of Titanic’s trio?
- Titanic’s second band: Trio for Restaurant and Café Parisien