In reading about Titanic’s bands you may come across the puzzling information that J. F. P. (Fred) Clarke, who played double bass, also played the viola on the Titanic. It is hypothetically possible that he was capable of playing more than one instrument, as some musicians are, but it is unlikely that he alternated between stand-up bass and viola on Titanic.
Clarke’s business card does not mention that he played the viola professionally. It lists his name and instrument, thus: J. F. P. Clarke CONTRA BASSO.
Contrabass is another name for the double bass. However, there is yet another more uncommon name for this instrument, bass viol.
The word “viol” in “bass viol” must be the source of confusion, leading some Titanic historians to assume that this made reference to the “viola.”
The term bass viol has been used in one other instance in association with Titanic’s music, in a New York Sun article that asked contemporary musicians about Titanic’s bandsmen. “‘The thing I can’t realize is that Happy Jock Hume is dead,’ said Louis Cross, a player of the bass viol.”
Bass viol and viola are completely different instruments. The bass viol is the same instrument as the stand-up bass seen in jazz ensembles or as the double bass seen in orchestras. These are all one in the same instrument, just as the violin and the fiddle are the same. On the other hand, the viola is the stringed instrument from the violin family that is played under the chin like a violin, but larger and with a lower range.
Although the double bass looks like it belongs to the violin family, in actual fact it belongs to a rare string family, the viol family, played primarily in the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
If you look at the double bass compared to instruments in the violin family (violins, violas and violoncellos), you will notice a difference in the curve of the shoulder, which is one of the main defining features between the two stringed families. Instruments in the viol family also have deeper bodies, often more than four strings, a lighter, more personal tone, a different bowing technique, and are different in enough ways that together they constitute a stringed family separate from the violin family.
The following YouTube video offers an example of early music performed on the Viola da Gamba, an instrument from the viol family similar to the cello that has resurfaced in recent years.
The only instrument from the viol family still commonly used worldwide today is the bass viol, or double bass. The following YouTube video shows an outstanding double bass performance.
To show how different the violin family’s viola is to the two instruments above, here is a gorgeous performance from YouTube, performed on viola.
Did Fred Clarke play the viola? None of the primary sources make reference to him playing the viola, so the sure answer is no, he did not play the viola on the Titanic (or likely anywhere else). This information seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the meaning of the term “bass viol.” On the Titanic Clarke played the double bass, also known as the stand-up bass, contrabass and the bass viol.
There could be another reason historians have tried to credit someone with playing viola. So far my blog has mentioned two such attempts: Georges Krins, who played violin in the trio, and now Fred Clarke, who played double bass in the quintet. Viola was the only instrument that was never officially listed for any of Titanic‘s musicians, and yet viola is a standard instrument in large and small stringed ensembles. Wouldn’t it make sense for there to have been a violist on Titanic?
What style did Clarke play?
In 1912 music was in an interesting age of transition. Musicians like those who played in Titanic’s bands were trained in the classical tradition. The fact that Clarke’s business card read “contra basso” attests to his full classical roots. His card did not read “stand-up bass,” a more jazzy term for the same instrument. And yet jazz was in its beginnings. No instrument on board Titanic would have been caught between the classical and jazz styles more than the double bass.
In the absence of the actual written arrangements played by the quintet, several questions arise. Did Clarke play with the bow? If so, the music would certainly have sounded classical. It is likely that most of the music listed in the W. S. L. MUSIC songbook was arranged for bowed double bass.
Anyone who has ever seen the songbook is surprised how few of the titles were popular. However, there were a few. For these numbers, did Clarke let the bow hang and simply pluck the bassline in pizzicato style? Or (a stretch for a classically-trained musician in 1912), perhaps set down the bow entirely and play in the true jazz walking bass style? This we will never know for sure but it is interesting to muse on the possibilities nonetheless.
If primary source evidence surfaces that J. F. P. Clarke played the viola either on or off the Titanic, please contact me. But for now it is safe to say Fred Clarke played only double bass (i.e. contrabass, stand-up bass, or bass viol) in Titanic’s quintet, on his first and only seagoing gig.
- April 11, 1912: Day with Titanic’s five-piece band
- Titanic sailed in the golden age of trained musicians
- Titanic’s saloon orchestra, deck band and leaders
Additional biographical information on J. F. P. Clarke: The Band Played On by Steve Turner