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.
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.
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.
- Titanic’s final number: Three Note Theory
- Where did Titanic’s band play during the sinking?
- When did Titanic’s band stop playing?
- Sealed Orders by Helen Churchill Candee from Collier’s Weekly
Additional biographical information on Wallace Hartley: The Band Played On by Steve Turner