Titanic’s quintet: Wallace Hartley, violin and bandleader

Wallace Hartley

Titanic’s best-known musician has always been Wallace Hartley. It should be clarified that he became well known after Titanic sank, after the final brave performance. On the voyage itself he was simply one of the esteemed musicians who drew the attention of the ship’s more musical passengers, but was otherwise anonymous, not known by name.

He has always been listed as Wallace Hartley, violin and bandleader. It is interesting that he has never been referred to as first violin, as Jock Hume was, but just simply as “violin.” The distinction is that Hume’s trio had two violinists, for where there is a first, there must also be a second. With Hartley violin is always listed in its singular form, so the deduction is that the quintet had only one.

He was remembered by one of Titanic’s survivors, First Class passenger Helen Churchill Candee. And in describing a conversation she remembered from one of the quintet’s evening performances in the Reception Room on D Deck, she, too, used violin in its singular form.

Helen Churchill Candee, “Sealed Orders” Collier’s Weekly, May 4, 1912:
“…after dinner there was coffee served to all at little tables around the great general lounging place, for here the orchestra played. Some said it was poor on its Wagner work, others said the violin was weak. But that was for conversation’s sake, for nothing on board was more popular than the orchestra.”

Hartley was the violinist in the ensemble of which Candee wrote. The “weak violin” comment is rather nebulous, for there have always been some troublesome audience members who like to express pretentious opinions about classical performances. This alone should not be used against Hartley as a testament of his skill as a violinist. Candee, herself, discounted the opinion citing that it was only for conversation’s sake.

A letter written on Titanic from Hartley to his parents.

Hartley led the quintet in six one-hour performances each day of Titanic’s voyage. In Second Class they performed morning, afternoon and evening in the Entrance Foyer on C Deck. The remaining three performances were in First Class: mornings at the Boat Deck level of the Grand Staircase, and afternoons and evenings in the Reception Room outside the First Class Dining Saloon.

It was at the Boat Deck level of the First Class Grand Staircase that Hartley led the quintet in Titanic’s most famous performance in the hours of the sinking. It was his five-piece band that played until the very end, heard by at least four survivors who remained on board the ship within minutes of the sinking. The final two numbers were a ragtime tune, identified by May Futrelle as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and a waltz tune identified by Harold Bride as “Autumn” (Songe d’automne). Apparently the final number was cut short and the instruments abandoned.

Although it has been widely circulated that the band played Nearer, My God, To Thee as the final number, no one on board the ship heard the band play a hymn within the last fifteen minutes. It is possible that the melody wafted on the air and heard at a distance by those in lifeboats was the opening passage from the introduction of Songe d’automne, which bears a striking similarity to the first phrase of Nearer, My God, To Thee.

A violin being investigated that may have belonged to Hartley, or possibly played by him on Titanic.

Hartley’s body was recovered from Titanic’s wreckage as body No. 224, returned to Colne, Lancashire and buried on May 18, 1912. It was estimated that upwards of 40,000 people showed up to watch the funeral procession and attend the funeral. His interment received extensive coverage by the international press. To this day several elaborate memorials or statues pay tribute to his service on Titanic.

Hartley’s gravestone.

Related Posts


Additional biographical information on Wallace Hartley: The Band Played On by Steve Turner

8 thoughts on “Titanic’s quintet: Wallace Hartley, violin and bandleader

  1. Rebekah, I am wondering what does really mean this \”Selection\” category in WSLM. These was medleys, potpourris, or rather individual selections? We will never know. What do you think about this Rebekah? If these was potpourris, that's reducing the amount of music sheets.


  2. This is a very good proposal, that \”Selections\” were medleys of music from the operas. That might explain why each opera is listed as one number in this section of the WSL songbook. Nice work!


  3. Wow, I didn't think that I will discover such thing… this was only question… I was wondering why they didn't listed all popular selections and arias individually for example: from Rigioletto la donna e mobile and quartet as individual numbers. Actually some selections were listed individually, which made me think that there must be a diffrence between listing the one aria, and listing the whole musical play. Also, I think, that number in the book wasn't something abstract, but it gives the number of particular music sheet. If there is one number and is goes like this: 'Selections from the Stabat Mater' (an example out of Selections category) – that mean for me, that there is one sheet music with medley of selections from this work. The same in Selections category. There is no use of makeing separete sheet music for every popular selection from some not well known for example musical comedy, because there would be no passenger who could know it by title and request it. So there we have a medleys or rather we should say potpourris (I don't know which word is right in this case) of the most popular musical plays, and some, more recogniseable arias were listed also in Entr'acts and Intermezzos category, and for these selections there were separate sheets (for example quartet from Rigoletto or Glow Worm from Lysistrata). The other thing is that in sheet music for any musical play, \”passeges\” (sorry, I don't know which word to use) doesn't have to be tight and dense (the same here) so when orchestra play a medley, they can modify this, they can skip some selections for example, or play only one selection, if there is 'some passenger who know a big deal about music'…


  4. I like the idea that they were medleys which would have been the light-music they were aiming for. Medleys would have been very entertaining for passengers! 'Medley' and 'passages' are words commonly used in music terminology, so you are on the right track!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.