Titanic’s quintet: J. F. P. Clarke, contra basso

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.

Double bass.

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.

J. F. P. Clarke’s business card, actual size.
Courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives.

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.”

Perhaps a century ago the general public knew the term bass viol. But such is not the case today, even with some musicians. In his book The Band That Played On, author Steve Turner interpreted the information that Cross was “a player of the bass viol” and identified him as “…viola player Louis Cross…” [page 97]. In a similar misunderstanding, Cross and Clarke, both credited in 1912 as playing bass viol, seem to be credited today as players of the viola.

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.

Violin family (technically the double bass belongs to the viol family)

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.

Viol family

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.

Related posts


Additional biographical information on J. F. P. Clarke: The Band Played On by Steve Turner

7 thoughts on “Titanic’s quintet: J. F. P. Clarke, contra basso

  1. Is there a diffrence in notation for the same melody bowed and pizzi… in pizzicato style?Anyway, White Star Line would like Titanic be the best in any level, so I believe they wanted to get the best musicians and create the best light salon orchestras which passengers could listen to. As far as I see, the ragtime section in WSLM book is poor, so ragtime wasn't popular so much then (actually I think that British people preferred the classical and light music and they wouldn't be pleased to hear to much ragtime, and American people can have a big variety of ragtime in their country, and in that time the American society was quite fascinated with British culture, so the voyage on Titanic could be break for this what was popular in America, and at last they could hear more classical and light music from Europe) so I believe that ragtime was played more \”classical\” than \”jezzy\”. In fact, they didn't search for great musician and pay him money for just struming some strings to the rythm of ragtime…


  2. Notation is the same for bowed and pizzicato music. There would be a difference in the phrase marks or articulation marks. Generally, the word \”pizzicato\” or abbreviation \”pizz\” appears above the music.Pizzicato is fairly common in classical-style music for all stringed instruments, but I agree that most of the double bass music would have been played with the bow. I don't know a lot about jazz walking-bass music history, so if any readers know when this music developed or became widely played, please share.


  3. A classically trained English double bassist of this period would certainly have played with a bow the majority of the time, still holding on to it during pizzicato passages as classical bassist still do today. The concept of dispensing with the bow for extended pizzicato playing would have been all but unheard of in 1912. Pictures of early 20th century New Orleans ragtime ensembles almost always depict the bassist playing with a bow and the earliest jazz recordings with an audible double bass often contain extended arco passages. In this regard the bass playing on the recordings by I Salonisti is probably accurate, as opposed to Ian Whitcomb's fine CD which unfortunately features a pizzicato bass sound produced by a synthesizer.


  4. Thanks for contributing these thoughts! Love that word \”arco\” (played with the bow). It is so easy for music styles that developed after Titanic sailed to skew our imaginations on what music was like on Titanic. That's why I feel so many assume Titanic's bands improvised or played by memory, because exposure to today's popular musicians who never read music leaves enthusiasts believing all musicians can perform that way. Or, that the bands alternated instruments, or switched musicians in and out. Classically trained musicians in 1912 would have adhered to certain musical standards customary to classical music – and would have used sheet arrangements for a specific grouping of instruments, played as written, without exception. Your observations ring true on double bass technique remaining in the classical tradition in 1912.


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