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