Before we launch into the challenge of figuring out which musical instrument Percy Taylor played, let us sit back for a moment and take stock of the progress made on identifying Titanic’s bandsmen so far:Titanic’s trio consisted of three stringed instruments, making it a “string trio” with:
First violin, bandmaster (of the trio) – Jock Hume
Second violin – Georges Krins
Cello – Roger Bricoux
So far in the piano quintet we have identified and placed four out of the five musicians:
Violin, bandmaster (of the quintet) – Wallace Hartley
Cello – Wes Woodward
Double bass – Fred Clarke
Piano – Theo Brailey
The only musician left to place in the quintet is Percy Taylor.
Very little is known about the musical side of Taylor, one of the two musicians on Titanic who has traditionally been listed with both cello and piano. The lack of evidence for him seems to be evidence in itself. It is almost as though the press had nothing on him, nor did the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union (who created the famous poster of the bandsmen), so they just made it up to put something there, or copied someone else’s supposition.
What are the possible reasons so little is known about Taylor? Although he was the only bandsman who was married, he was estranged from his wife, Clara. It appears as though she made no effort whatsoever to help the public to learn more about him after his tragic death, though she was perfectly willing to accept funds raised for the survivors of Titanic’s deceased musicians.
According to Steve Turner, in his book The Band That Played On, “There were no obituaries or personal appreciations in Britain’s newspapers for him when he died, and although his name is included on all band memorials, he was never individually honored. This may simply be because he was from London rather than a small, close-knit community….”
So, although he has been credited as playing piano and cello there is an outside possibility that he played neither.
As a musician, I searched the information on Titanic’s quintet for sparse evidence on Taylor’s position. With the other bandsmen in place, the only missing part is a stringed instrument that would fill the alto voice.
Violin, bandleader – Wallace Hartley
[alto stringed instrument] – Percy Taylor
Cello – Wes Woodward
Double bass – Fred Clarke
Piano – Theo Brailey
(It should be explained here that the reason the musicians are listed in this order is because it is the custom in musical circles to list musicians by the instrument they play, in the order their instrument would appear in a music score.)
There is no concrete evidence of any instrument for Taylor. There is only an “aura” of evidence. Liken this to news that a new planet has been discovered far, far away, but scientists can’t actually see the planet, they can only see a gravitational pull that suggests the planet is there. Such is the case with Taylor’s instrument.
If Taylor had played second violin, Hartley would have been called not just bandleader and violin, but first violin. Hartley was never called that in primary sources, as Jock Hume was. Two passengers had identified only one violin in the group. First Class passenger Helen Churchill Candee had said, “…others said the violin was weak.” Second Class passenger Juliette Laroche had said, “…there is a concert next to me: a violin.…” In the aura of evidence, eyewitness references help us determine that there was only one violin, played by Hartley, and therefore Taylor did not play violin in the quintet, but something else.
Although Taylor was credited with playing cello, it would be highly unusual for a quintet to have an instrumentation consisting of two cellos. Laroche’s one reference to two cellos in the quintet came from an incomplete listing of only four out of five musicians, and it is likely that the cello and double bass, both large stringed instruments, were erroneously listed as two cellos. Moreover, a wall separated her from a view of the band. The more accurate picture came from Second Class passenger Kate Buss, who wrote many accounts of the cello and “Cello Man,” all in the singular. In the aura of evidence, one cello means Taylor played something else.
It has never been questioned that the quintet had only one double bass and one piano, so it is certain that Taylor played neither. Although the band has at times been depicted with wind instruments (in the 1958 movie A Night To Remember, for example), no primary sources have ever suggested anything other than stringed instruments and the piano.
If Taylor didn’t play violin (soprano), cello (tenor), double bass (bass) or piano, what did he play? Logic points to the only missing standard instrument that could have balanced the ensemble with the alto voice: the viola. Percy Taylor, the musician we know so little about, has now become our suspect violist.
But to make a claim like this I would need to offer a shred of proof. An aura of evidence would not likely be enough to persuade anybody.
The proof may come from a familiar passage. Let me repeat a quote that has been posted on Titanic Piano several times, from Titanic’s music agents C. W. & F. N. Black, the musical directors who had hired Titanic’s bandsmen.
Charles Black had been asked what he thought the bands had done during the sinking, and he answered, “Probably they all massed together under their leader, Mr. Wallace Hartley, as the ship sank. Five of the eight, Mr. Hartley, P. C. Taylor, J. W. Woodward, F. Clark and W. T. Brailey were Englishmen.”
In several posts including this one, the significance of the listed order of the bandsmen has been brought to light. Now reread this, within the present discussion, paying attention to the order Black listed the musicians, printed vertically. Remember what was said earlier in this post about musicians being listed in order according to their instrument?
It seems as though there is nothing random about the listed order of the bandsmen. The fact that Black listed the other four musicians in the correct order according to their instrument makes it believable that Taylor, too, is in order. Where does this place Taylor within the group? The instrument that is notated below the violin and above the cello in a music score is often the viola.
After Titanic sank, Charles Black would have been one of the only living men to know all the bandsmen’s names and instruments. His brother, Frederick, would have been the only other. In their office somewhere they had a document on which they had written the names of the quintet’s bandsmen, and the names were written in formal concert order.
From Charles Black, director of Titanic’s music, comes the major clue needed to complete the instrumentation of the quintet. Beyond suggesting Taylor’s part as violist, Black’s list also confirms the rest of the bandsmen and their instruments:
Hartley’s name appeared first, for his instrument, violin, would appear at the top of a quintet score, would be listed first in a concert program, and, apparently, first in a music agent’s list of bandsmen. This protocol (formality) continued with the rest of the band: Taylor in the spot of the next instrument, which suggests the viola, Woodward in the cello’s position, Clarke, the double bass position, and Brailey, the piano. It is the printed order of names that is significant, that aligns the bandsmen’s names with the instruments they played.
And where did Charles Black list Taylor’s name in the five? If the aura of evidence discounts a second violin or second cello, then Taylor fits neatly into the place of the viola. That makes a standard, balanced ensemble. Violin, viola, cello, double bass, piano.
Just as an aside, is it ironic or not that Titanic’s one musician who was incorrectly listed for a century was the violist? Often violists are overlooked, play the plinky notes no one pays attention to, provide the harmony to other instruments.
Titanic’s violist was probably never asked to play a solo, or ever had the chance to flirt with the ladies. In Juliette Laroche’s list of instruments, the only one not mentioned, either specifically or by implication, was the viola. Yet, there was a viola there.
Perhaps it is time for the violists of the world to stand up and recognize one of their own. An obituary, or a statue, or a plaque somewhere in London. Perhaps it is finally time for someone to organize a proper tribute to Titanic’s violist, Percy Taylor.
- Titanic’s quintet: How many cellos?
- Titanic’s quintet: Who was the quintet’s cellist?
- Titanic’s quintet: Who was the pianist?
No one tells the violist’s fate like Lemony Snicket in “The Composer is Dead,” which is narrated to music by composer Nathaniel Stookey. You will find the passage on the viola at 3:20.