Titanic’s quintet: Who was the cellist?

Three of the four musicians on board Titanic credited with playing cello were members of the five-piece band: Theo Brailey, Percy Taylor and Wes Woodward. It would have been highly improbable for an ensemble of only five players to have more than one cellist, so it is necessary by process of elimination to decipher which one actually played cello in this ensemble on Titanic.

Second Class passenger Kate Buss spoke of the cellist in a lengthy letter she wrote on board in installments throughout the voyage. It is certain that Buss was referring to the quintet’s cellist because she travelled in Second Class, and only the quintet played in that part of the ship.

You will notice that she always spelled cello with an apostrophe. That is because cello is really an abbreviation of the real name of the instrument, violoncello, and Buss knew she was using the shortened name. In modern nomenclature the apostrophe has been dropped.

The other point of interest is that she always spoke of the cello or of ‘cello man’ in the singular.

Kate Buss, On board RMS Titanic, April 11, 1912:
“We have three promenade decks, one above the other. Each one has a sort of hall lounge and on the one above my cabin the band plays every afternoon and evening. The ’cello man is a favorite of mine, every time he finishes a piece he looks at me and we smile.”

Kate Buss, On board RMS Titanic, April 12, 1912:
“Saw Doctor just after dinner, and reminded him of his promise to ask our ’cello man to play a solo. Says he would if I’d go to Kentucky. He waited for us, and we took our seats on the stairs. Too late to arrange, so going to ask for it tomorrow. ’Cello man quite nice. Very superior bandsman, and he always smiles his parting to us.”

Kate Buss, On board RMS Titanic, April 13, 1912:
“Arranged to meet the Doctor and go and hear the band. Couldn’t get near to ask our ’cello man for solo. […] After luncheon we went with a French lady to hear her sing. We had previously met the ’cello man and asked if he would play a solo. He is quite gentlemanly. He agreed, and we chatted, amongst other things about the Olympic. He was on her when the accident happened. She was struck just where their berths were, and he said that had they been in there, they must have been killed. We have the Olympic captain on board.”

Kate Buss, On board Carpathia, April 16, 1912:
“The musicians were such nice men. I asked one night for a ’cello solo, and got it at once.”

Because Buss always referred to the cellist in the singular, we will continue the search for his name assuming there was only one cello in the quintet.

There are three candidates for cellist: Theo Brailey, who studied cello, Percy Taylor, who has always been credited as playing cello, and Wes Woodward, a noted professional cellist.

Theo Brailey

Theo Brailey

Theo Brailey is a candidate for the quintet’s cello position by virtue of the fact that he had studied cello. Although he was a recognized talent on the piano in his youth, two of the instruments he studied at the Royal Military School of Music just outside London, were cello and flute. Perhaps he studied these because he felt playing them would give him a better chance of filling a position in a military band. He received recognition in January 1906 for his progress with a “good degree of proficiency” on the cello and a “very good degree of proficiency” on the flute.

It is unknown what the term “proficiency” meant in this context. Typically in university programs today a musician’s “principal applied instrument” is the main instrument of study. “Proficiency” classes are meant for the purpose of teaching basic skills, a general knowledge of a class of instruments.

For example, an education student who hopes to teach high school band may major on the trumpet, their own principal applied instrument, but would need to have a general knowledge of all wind and percussion instruments, and so would take proficiency classes to learn how to play them all in a rudimentary fashion. Young composers are also often advised to learn how all the orchestral instruments work in order to compose effective music.

In Theo Brailey’s case it is unknown how well he learned to play cello or flute, or whether his skill ever equaled that of his piano playing.

Percy Taylor

Percy Taylor

So little is known about Percy Taylor as a musician that it is completely unknown what instruments he studied or where. There are no known professional performances on any instrument prior to the one on Titanic. The only source of evidence that he played cello and piano was from the posters published of the bandsmen after the sinking of Titanic. The few obscure statements about him in newspapers after the sinking suggested he was a pianist.

Wes Woodward

Wes Woodward

In 1900, at the age of 21, John Wesley (Wes) Woodward received his teacher’s and performer’s licentiate from the Royal College of Music in London. There is ample evidence that he played cello professionally. In his mid twenties he performed with small ensembles in Oxford, then in his late twenties with the Duke of Devonshire’s Band, a privately funded orchestra that gave public concerts in Eastbourne. Prior to sailing on Titanic he had performed at the Constant Spring Hotel near Kingston, Jamaica, as well as on ships: White Star Line’s Olympic for the duration of her early career, and Cunard’s Caronia.

In Buss’s letter she had mentioned a conversation with the cellist in which he had said he was on Olympic when she collided with Hawke. It is known Woodward was on Olympic from her maiden voyage until the day of the accident. This piece of information alone identifies him as the quintet’s cellist.

John Wesley Woodward, cellist

Beyond that, photographs of Woodward match the pleasant character Buss described in her ‘cello man.’ She made note that he was a ‘superior bandsman.’

One other Second Class passenger made mention of the quintet’s cellist, now identified as Woodward. Lawrence Beesley wrote of his experiences on Titanic after the collision with the iceberg. Beesley watched the activity on the ship from the Starboard side of the Second Class section of the Boat Deck.

As the bandsmen were also Second Class passengers, they would have used all the usual Second Class corridors and stairways, and would have been seen by their fellow passengers between performances. It seems as though the quintet accessed their performance venue at the top of the First Class Grand Staircase by ascending the stairs in Second Class up to the Boat Deck level, and then making their way along the length of the Boat Deck all the way to the First Class Entrance Hall.

It can be believed that it was the quintet’s cellist that Beesley saw because the Boat Deck led directly to the quintet’s venue. As mentioned in a past post, the trio’s cellist would have accessed the inner First Class Reception Room on B Deck from a crew stairway located inside the ship.

Lawrence Beesley, The Loss of the S. S. “Titanic”, June, 1912:
“Soon after the men had left the starboard side, I saw a bandsman–the ’cellist–come round the vestibule corner from the staircase entrance and run down the now deserted starboard deck, his ’cello trailing behind him, the spike dragging along the floor. This must have been about 12.40 a. m. I suppose the band must have begun to play soon after this and gone on until after 2 a. m. Many brave things were done that night, but none more brave than by those few men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea and the sea rose higher and higher to where they stood; the music they played serving alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recorded on the rolls of undying fame.”

One wonders–what had delayed Woodward, what had held him behind and caused him to rush?

With Wes Woodward named as the quintet’s cellist, only two musicians remain to be placed

in the ensemble: Theo Brailey and Percy Taylor. The next two posts will attempt to sort out the parts they played on Titanic.

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13 thoughts on “Titanic’s quintet: Who was the cellist?

  1. Evidence suggests Brailey was capable of playing piano, cello and flute. I guess one has to take the information on him as a person and compare it to what has been said about music on the Titanic in general. It is not at all easy to pull these shreds of evidence together. Two more posts on the quintet's musicians – stay posted!


  2. By the way, overture to Morning, Noon & Night in Vienna has good solo cello sequence. I can almost imagine Wesley playing this while looking at the picture of him.


  3. For our readers, in the first section of the White Star Line song request book, called \”Overtures,\” number 9 is Suppe's Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna. Copy this link to view a performance on YouTube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S-iWuvFhzEIf only Buss had asked the title of Woodward's cello solo! It is likely he performed something from his own repertoire, perhaps something he had memorized as a student, or something from a performance in Eastbourne. R


  4. According to Daniel Allen Butler and his book \”Unsinkable\” the bandsmen and theirs instruments were:Hartley – first violinClark – celloTaylor – pianoBrailey – pianoWoodward – celloHume – second violinKrins – violaBricoux – cellono source for thisFurther, ragtime songs played during sunking:- Alexander's Ragtime Band- Oh You Beautiful Doll- Can't You Hear Me, Caroline?- A Little Love, a Little Kiss- Moonlight Baysource for this: \”Beesley, 83-84\”. I don't know if these ones were in the songbook used on Titanic or not, because the one I have is from circa 1914 I think, and I don't know if Beesley really heard it, or someone told him…


  5. Yes, I have heard that Butler credited Krins with the viola. I would believe it if I saw evidence on where Krins studied viola, or any evidence of Krins playing viola before he boarded Titanic. As talented as musicians are, they don't pick up an instrument for the first time on a ship like Titanic. Clarke was a double bassist. My husband has his authentic business card at work, which was found on his body and brought to Halifax. It says Contra Basso, which means double bass or bass viol. The problem is that the trio had no piano according to the ship's plans. It was only possible for one pianist to be on board, in the quintet. That is why I am going through accounts with a fine-toothed comb trying to figure out what instruments really were played in the two bands.


  6. I'm looking at \”The First Violin\” by Yvonne Hume right now and she has the bands divided thus:QUINTETJock Hume, first violinWallace Hartley, bandmaster & second violinFred Clarke, bass viola (notice that Yvonne spells bass viol with an \”a\” at the end – it seems like she, too, thinks \”viol\” means \”viola\”. Bass viol = double bass. There is no \”a\” in viol :)Percy Taylor, pianoJohn Woodward, celloYvonne Hume sets up the trio, the same way the New York Times did:Georges Krins, violinRoger Bricoux, celloTheodore Brailey, pianoThe thing that bothers me about Yvonne Hume's list is that it is a paradox to have a first violin, and then have the bandleader play second violin. Bandleaders don't play second violin. First violin and bandleader go together always. Titanic played by the same musical rules as all the other performance venues in 1912. The reason people suggest such things about Titanic is because today's historians don't completely understand musical rules that aren't broken. First violin in a small ensemble = bandleader.


  7. I want to clarify that there are many wonderful historians today, and I depend on their work to feed my ideas. SOME historians have suggested and perpetuated ideas about music on Titanic that I have only ever seen in association with Titanic. I don't even know their names, so this isn't about competing with other ideas. I'm hoping my perspective, having studied Classical music, will shed light on some of Titanic's musical puzzles. Titanic was not an isolated case where musical customs were altered. Titanic's music was part of a larger musical culture. I'm attempting to take the evidence I see and interpret it within the knowledge of what that culture was and is.


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