Titanic’s quintet: How many cellos?

Titanic sailed with two small ensembles, a piano quintet and a string trio. A standard instrumentation for these instrument groupings would normally require only one cello each, with a total of two cellos on board.

One of Titanic’s Second Class passengers, Juliette Laroche, identified the instruments she heard in a concert by the quintet on the morning of April 11, 1912. She mentioned the band’s performance in a letter she wrote to her father while sitting in Titanic’s ‘salon de lecture.’

Translated from French, she wrote, “I am writing you in the reading room and there is a concert next to me: a violin, two cellos [and] a piano.”

This account has led many to believe that Titanic sailed with more than two cellists. For if Laroche had witnessed two cellists in the quintet alone, perhaps that meant there were three cellists on board. 1912 press reports seemed to reinforce this, listing as many as four cellists: Roger Bricoux and Wes Woodward playing cello only, and Percy Taylor and Theo Brailey playing both cello and piano (one instrument or alternating on both).

In her letter Laroche identified the piano, only one violin, two cellos, and made no mention of a stand-up bass. In the interest of considering all the evidence with a fair look, let’s assume for a moment that Juliette Laroche’s account was accurate and that there were indeed two cellos in Titanic’s quintet.

Viola Substitute Theory

There are several important musical considerations to keep in mind when discussing the makeup of Titanic’s bands. Would the agents, C. W. & F. N. Black, have been able to provide written arrangements for an ensemble that consisted of that group of instruments? Would the music have sounded balanced with the voicing of those instruments? If the instrument lists that have been passed down to us are accurate, then figuring out the discrepancy in the number of cellos on board is the biggest obstacle in figuring out the matter of arrangements and sound. Sheet music arrangements for one violin, two cellos, double bass and piano simply would not have existed.

The arrangements for the five-piece band were most likely written for an ensemble that looked like this on paper:

  • Violin
  • Viola
  • Cello
  • Stand-up bass
  • Piano

Here is an example of a complete score for piano quintet. Notice that the instruments appear top to bottom in the order of highest to lowest stringed instruments (violin, viola, cello, double bass), with the piano’s grand staff on the bottom.

The Viola Substitute Theory proposes that arrangements written as such were performed by an ensemble that looked like this in the room:

  • Violin
  • Cello 1
  • Cello 2
  • Stand-up bass
  • Piano

This theory suggests that C. W. & F. N. Black could not find a violist to sail with the ship, and at the last minute substituted a cello into the part. Musically, this would have been possible. Viola music is written in the alto clef, a clef that has a range between the treble and bass clefs. Cellos have such a large range, extending through bass, alto and treble clefs, that cellists are required to learn to read all three.

Musically it would have been possible for a cello to perform a part written for a viola. This would have maintained a kind of balance in the ensemble, with the violin playing the soprano voice, cello 1 playing the alto voice, cello 2 playing the tenor/baritone voice, double bass carrying the bass, and the piano in all ranges, at times in the lead, sometimes doubling the strings, and still others providing a rhythmic backdrop to the strings.

It is impossible to prove the Viola Substitute Theory, but it seems to be the only way to reconcile the instruments as they were listed in press reports after Titanic sank.

Location and Accuracy

To recap Laroche’s letter: “I am writing you in the reading room and there is a concert next to me: a violin, two cellos [and] a piano.”

The longer I think, the more I believe Juliette Laroche’s incomplete instrument list was also incorrect, having called the two large stringed instruments cellos when they were really one cello and one double bass. But how could an eye witness be wrong?

Some historians have interpreted that Laroche saw the band perform in the Second Class Dining Saloon, taking the French word ‘salon’ and using it to suggest ‘saloon.’ After all, there was a piano in the Dining Saloon. If this were the case there would be no reason to question the accuracy of Laroche’s instrument listing, as the piano and band would have been in full view of the audience in the Dining Saloon, and it could be assumed that she saw the instruments directly before her and wrote of them as an eye witness.

However, upon deeper investigation it becomes known that the piano in the Second Class Dining Saloon was in place only for Divine Service on Sundays, not for regular performances, and that volunteer passengers, not bandsmen, played there. Titanic‘s hired band had only one known performance venue in Second Class, and it was in the Entrance Foyer on C Deck. In the ship’s design an upright Steinway piano was stationed in the Entrance Foyer just outside the Second Class Library door, and it was here that the band performed three times daily.

Several details from Laroche’s letter pinpoint this as the location of the concert: mention of the piano, her mention of hearing music while writing in the ‘salon de lecture’ (library is a more accurate translation than dining saloon), as well as her description of the band ‘next’ to her (the Entrance Foyer and Library were side-by-side).

If it is true that Laroche wrote her letter while sitting in the Second Class Library, then a wall would have separated her from visual contact with the band. In reading Laroche’s short description it can be assumed that she saw the band briefly as she walked by them on her way to the library, and had had but a quick glance at them in passing. The music would have been audible in the library, and she would have heard it while she wrote. But the fact that the band was out of sight caused her to provide her father, as well as generations of Titanic enthusiasts, with an inaccurate listing of instruments.

As students of the Titanic, it is important to appreciate first person accounts as points of interest to be considered within a body of information rather than as absolute pieces of fact. It is the opinion of this author that Laroche heard Titanic‘s standard quintet in performance, but for some unknown reason listed only four out of the five instruments and erroneously listed two cellos where there was indeed only one.

With this conclusion the total number of cellos on board the Titanic would have been two: one in the quintet (commonly known as the ‘deck band’) and one in the trio (commonly known as the ‘saloon orchestra.’)

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5 thoughts on “Titanic’s quintet: How many cellos?

  1. Do you have access to any sources about these musicians to state which instrument they played? Without this we can't prove or disprove anything, I think.


  2. If the one cello would play the range for viola, and the other their own, it could work, I believe. As far as I see, there are also trios with violin, cello and double bass, so I think it could work also in string quartet with two cellos.


  3. I think in the past there was no problem of imbalance because one of the cellists was assumed to play the piano instead in the trio, but you can't argue with the ship's design – there was no piano there. Stay posted, I have more to say on the quintet's instrumentation.


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