In Titanic lore there have always been two pianists listed in the instrument lineup. Posters and photomontages of Titanic’s bandsmen that were printed after the disaster identified Theodore Brailey and Percy Taylor as the two.
Though there were likely several musicians who could play the piano, it is safe to say that on Titanic’s maiden voyage there was only one hired pianist, who played in the five-piece deck band. With Brailey and Taylor as the two candidates, I have honestly gone back and forth between them. In the historical notes of my piano books, the first edition has it one way, the second edition, the other.
Brailey’s main instrument growing up was the piano. His first piano teacher, Miriam Geary, lived at the end of the road of his boyhood home in Essex. In 1955, Clifford Buttle, a man who had known the Brailey family, remembered the young Theo in an interview. He said, “From the commencement of his education the boy displayed a marked talent for music. So much so that he soon outpaced his teacher….”
By the age of fourteen Brailey was playing piano professionally in the Kensington Palace Hotel orchestra in West London. The conductor, Simon Von Lier, noted that Brailey was a “highly efficient pianist,” which suggests that he had an aptitude for picking music up quickly and reading well at sight.
A month before his fifteenth birthday, on October 9, 1902, Brailey signed up for the army in a regiment called the Lancashire Fusiliers. Just over a year later, while stationed in Barbados, he was appointed as a bandsman. His late teens were spent studying music, for in March, 1904, he enrolled at the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall in Twickenham, just outside London. He studied there for about two years.
He completed his musical studies and military training in January 1906 and was awarded certificates of accomplishment on flute and cello (it is unknown whether he also studied piano). Then, with less than five years of military life under his belt, Brailey left the army in February 1907 by buying himself out.
In the years that spanned his early twenties (1907-1912) Brailey held several positions as a professional musician. In Southport, Lancashire he played with the Pier Pavilion orchestra, and made several voyages playing as a bandsman on the Cunard liners Saxonia and Carpathia.
Prior to sailing he may also have studied music once again, though no records have been found. He also tried his hand at composing. Two works survive from the year 1911: “Ballet of the Roses” and “A Little Scherzo.”
There are several compelling reasons to believe Brailey was Titanic’s pianist. Musicians who had known him and worked with him identified him as a pianist. Clifford Buttle remembered him as a boy pianist from Essex. Conductor Simon Von Lier remembered him as a “highly efficient pianist.” And in 1912 when it became public that he had been lost on the ill-fated Titanic, his regiment the Lancashire Fusiliers remembered him as “a talented musician, and an exceptionally good performer on the piano.”
Moreover, it has always been known that Titanic’s pianist also knew how to play the cello. Because Brailey had studied cello at the Royal Military School of Music, he fits the description of someone who was primarily a pianist, but had cello as a secondary instrument. He was awarded a certificate in 1906 that stated he had achieved a “good deal of proficiency” on the cello. The word “proficiency” itself implies that Brailey had not exactly mastered the cello, but had learned it fairly well. In other words, it is much more likely that his piano skills still exceeded his skill on the cello, which made it far more likely that he went on to play piano professionally.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of all that Brailey was Titanic’s pianist: just prior to embarking on Titanic Brailey had been playing in a band on another ship, the Carpathia, with Roger Bricoux, also destined to play on Titanic. Brailey’s instrument on the Carpathia was the piano.
The following quote from the New York Sun was typical of the press coverage of Taylor, the other bandsman thought to play piano on Titanic. Including the errors on Taylor, how many mistakes can you find?
New York Sun, April 21, 1912:
“There were five other musicians on the Titanic. Herbert Taylor was the pianist, a skilled musician, about forty years of age. His wife is an actress. The ‘cellist was George Woodward, unmarried, of Leeds, England. The other three men were Brailey, Krins and Breicoux, who formed a trio which played in the second cabin and when the other men were off duty.”
- Taylor’s first name was Percy, not Herbert.
- Did Taylor really play piano on Titanic?
- Woodward was named John Wesley, Wes for short, not George.
- Woodward was from Hill Top, not Leeds.
- Brailey played in the quintet, not the trio, as the trio had no piano available to them in their performance venue.
- Breicoux is spelled Bricoux.
- The trio played only in First Class on a regular schedule, never in Second Class, nor did they fill in for the other band.
This particular New York Sun quote was so wrought with errors that it is difficult to believe the accuracy of the statement that Taylor played piano. But at the time, because most readers in the public assumed both ensembles had access to a piano, no one questioned that the Titanic had two pianists on board.
The fact that Taylor had two instruments credited to his name suggests a bit of grasping on the part of the reporters. Perhaps to be safe, on the offhand chance they were wrong about the piano, they included the cello as a backup for good measure, copying the instruments attributed to Brailey.
Louis Cross, a player of double bass on White Star liners, was credited with an interview given to the New York Sun. This, too, gave Taylor the incorrect first name, Herbert. (In fact, google “Herbert Taylor Titanic,” and you will find many online sources calling him by this name.)
Credited to Louis Cross, New York Sun, 1912:
“Herbert Taylor, the pianist, was considered a master of his instrument. He was a man of an intellectual turn of mind with a thin, studious face. He was married and his home was in London.”
Cross had sailed with several of Titanic’s bandsmen prior to her maiden voyage. But as this was Taylor’s first gig on the open sea, it is unlikely that Cross knew him at all. It is possible that the above quote was completely made up and simply attributed to Cross.
In the search for Titanic’s pianist, there is ample evidence to back up Brailey and no reliable evidence to support Taylor. We can therefore be confident that Titanic’s pianist was Theo Brailey.
Second Class passenger Kate Buss wrote a short reminiscence about a conversation with this man, and now we can know for sure that it was of Brailey that she wrote:
Kate Buss, On Board Carpathia, April 16, 1912:
“That night the pianist had asked me if I would mind taking round the subscription, as I had appreciated the music. At supper I talked Mr. N.* and Dr. P. into promising to do it for me, and as a joke the former rehearsed a possible speech, and then said ‘Meet me on the upper deck at six in the morning. I will talk it over.’ I saw the pianist as I was going to bed, and promised. That is the last that I saw of them.”
The next post on Titanic Piano will explore Percy Taylor’s role on Titanic.
*Mr. N was Robert Douglas Norman, a Scottish Second Class passenger. It was he who played piano for the Second Class hymn sing on the night of April 14, 1912.
- Titanic’s quintet: Which part did Taylor play?
- Titanic’s quintet: Who was the quintet’s cellist?
- Titanic’s quintet: Wallace Hartley, violin and bandleader
12 thoughts on “Titanic’s quintet: Who was the pianist?”
Hello there! I'm glad someone is taking the time to dissect all of the information still out there. I have a couple of things I wanted to inquire about however… I've been an amateur maritime historian for some time now, and a lot of what you have said in these various posts has jumped out at me. Both Titanic and Olympic had numerous pianos stationed throughout First, Second, & Third class. In First class, there was a minimum of 2-3 pianos that I can recall of the top of my head, (Boat Deck – Grand Staircase, D Deck – First Class Dining Saloon) and I can't recall if there was one in the aft staircase outside of the Cafe Parisien. Second class had at least two, and third class one I believe. So in theory, it's completely plausible that there were 2 piano players working on Titanic at the same time. After all, they had to play tea-time in first and second cabin, dinner in both saloons, the trio stationed outside of the Cafe, etc. So is it possible that there were actually two pianists and three cellists on-board for this very reason?When it comes to the enigma that is the White Star Songbook, I've heard many theories. The one that actually makes the most sense is that the pieces were memorized. You said in a previous post how hard it would be to play off the top of the head all of those pieces. Not really, when you factor in class. Certain pieces were ONLY played for a certain audience. I highly doubt if \”Comic Cake Walk\” or \”Oh You Beautiful Doll\” were played at First class dinner, rather they were probably played in second class during tea-time. Valse Septembre was probably a first class exclusive. Not to mention the more heavy and intricate pieces like Songe d'Automne were only played outside of the Cafe Parisien & the A la Carte restaurants to give them a more exclusive, continental feel. Many of the pieces were compartmentalized for where on the ship they were being played and to whom. So not every musician would have necessarily known every piece or needed to.I never really believed the validity of requests being taken that often either. That's why it was called \”Palm Court Music.\” Musicians of the era would often hide behind the palms installed throughout the ships or manor homes, as to not be seen. They were considered \”the help\” in their day, not artists as we would view them now…So sorry for that tangent lol, I'm just curious if those factors had been addressed here already. At any rate, please keep up the wonderful research an
Mike, Thanks for all these points. I've written on most of these topics, and it sounds as though you have read some of my posts, but for readers who haven't I'll give the url's of my past posts that answer these questions. Simply copy and paste. Regarding palm court performances: Titanic lived in the age of palm court music, but technically the performance venues were in full view of the audience, and the performances were like concerts, with an attentive audience. Posts:Titanic: What is a palm court musician? http://titanicpiano.blogspot.ca/2011/12/what-is-palm-court-musician.htmlDid Titanic have palm court performances?http://titanicpiano.blogspot.ca/2012/01/did-titanic-have-palm-court.htmlTo see photographs of the performance venues on Olympic (Titanic’s would have been the same), go to these two posts. You will notice that the band did not hide behind palm branches.Titanic’s first class pianos.http://titanicpiano.blogspot.ca/2012/03/titanics-first-class-pianos.htmlTitanic’s second class pianos. http://titanicpiano.blogspot.ca/2012/03/titanics-second-class-pianos.html
Mike, Titanic had six pianos. Three in First Class (two of which were used for performances by the band), two in Second Class (one of which was used for performances by the band), and one in Third Class, which was used by passengers only, never by a band. The quintet was the band that performed with the performance pianos. It was the quintet that played at the top of the Grand Staircase, in the Reception Room on D Deck, and in the Second Class entrance foyer outside the Library.The pianos in the dining saloons were in place only for divine services on Sundays, and the pianos were played by volunteer passengers. [This information comes from the book TITANIC The Ship Magnificent by Beveridge et al, historians who have studied the ship’s plans extensively]The other band was the trio. The trio’s one and only performance venue, the Reception Room outside the restaurants, did not have a piano. Ship’s plans indicate that there was no piano for that band, and so this orchestra would have consisted of three stringed instruments. [TITANIC The Ship Magnificent]
Mike, I’m responding to your ideas one at a time, and I hope that’s okay. LOL I’m interested to know where you read the information that the repertoire was divided by class. The quintet played for both First and Second classes, so in your theory, it would have had to know both repertoires, which would not have simplified their repertoire as you are trying to suggest. I do assert that the bands both used sheet music for all the numbers in the White Star Line MUSIC request book. Memorization is no small thing in Classical music, and the vast majority of the titles on Titanic were Classical. There were very few popular titles.Here is the url of my article on the subject. Just copy and paste. Did Titanic's band play their music by memory?http://titanicpiano.blogspot.ca/2012/01/did-titanics-band-play-their-music-by.html
thanks for sharing.
There was a piano player in Pittsburgh who played a singalong in an East Liberty downstairs bar. He showed me pics of his band advertised to play the Titanic – while they were in port. He said once the ship was to be launched, they hired a white band.
Interesting — in what year did you have this conversation with the musician?
I remember the name Nelson Maples. But it doesn’t look like he was Black. So I may be combining memories with another piano player, because Nelson was definitely playing singalongs at the Sunken Cork.
I went to a residence of the piano player I’m thinking of and he showed me a group pic of the Titanic band with black musicians.
Now that I remember the name, I searched my files and I have a small collection of articles if you want to privately contact me.
Hi, I’ve checked out the links you shared and it appears as though the bandsmen you’re referring to sailed on the S. S. Leviathan, a ship that does resemble the Titanic and was from the same era. However, Titanic was noted for having four smoke stacks (the fourth for show, as it was not operational). While there were black travellers on Titanic, all evidence to date points to white musicians performing on the liner in 1912. Also, at the time Titanic sailed, bands were formed for one and only one voyage. Otherwise, the band was not an entity that created recordings, promoted itself as a group, or existed outside the voyage. The bands on the maiden voyage had never before played together, and were not bound to play together after disembarking in New York. This is known because some bandsmen were using the voyage on Titanic to get to New York and had no plans to sail again.
There are lots of newspaper ads of “Nelson Maples and the Leviathan Orchestra” in Pittsburgh – no photos. But he showed me a newspaper clipping with a photo of him in a band to play on the new Titanic; I don’t remember the name of the band. However, that possibly was the ONLY article, and I’m sure the company quietly cancelled them.
In the meantime I’ve found several youtube history videos pointing out that photos were often exposed so that darker faces looked white, so photos are not entirely trustworthy.
The puzzlement continues, I’ll keep looking in letters home… Nelson was very old in 1982ish when I met him.