“If any glory at all attaches to the awful tragedy of the sea about which the world is still talking, it circles ‘round the heads of these heroic bandsmen who played the mighty vessel to its doom. Materialists may scoff… but there was something in the last scene, a pitiful grandeur, that makes all mankind kin, and defies hard reasoning.”
—The Birkenhead News, in the weeks following the Titanic sinking.
And the band played on. This, of all the legends surrounding the RMS Titanic, is the one least in doubt. After 99 years of intense scrutiny, nearly every aspect of this unique watershed in Western history has been reduced to its component humanity, good, bad and sometimes criminally indifferent; but always in the background are Wallace Hartley and his mates, resolutely sawing away at Nearer, My God to Thee as The Great Ship Went Down.
This certainty probably has a lot to do with why, until now, the bandsmen themselves have not had a significant turn in the Titanic literary spotlight. Their chapter in Walter Lord’s The Night Lives On is devoted mostly to figuring out which song they played at the last (a more complicated task than it seems, given that the same hymns are set to different music on either side of the Atlantic.)
At first glance it seems like an obvious, not to say highly deserving, choice for the book-length treatment: an indepth exploration into who these eight obscure young men were and what made them the comfort of a shattered generation, when all about them theoretically greater men were failing those same ideals.
In practice, however, there are issues. For starters, there’s not all that much to discover from a personal POV: these were talented musicians, but by no means celebrities. Western music culture at the turn of the 20th century was largely a matter of providing the anonymous Muzak of daily life—those pleasant classical airs you heard while strolling through the park, taking tea… or relaxing on board a luxury liner. A young musician willing to work hard could, and in the case of all of the Titanic bandsmen did, attain to a very respectable reputation without ever actually making it into the newspapers.
Steve Turner, an old hand at music biography and a self-described history buff, does a solid job here of recreating this milieu, and placing his subjects within it. Patiently teasing the reality out of the tributes—besides a few letters home, and some certificates from music schools, that’s pretty much all he has to work with here—and making plausible, studiously hyperbole-free guesses as to what filled in the gaps, he sketches a convincing and appealing portrait of eight young men largely well-satisfied with life and looking forward to the future.
This is perhaps the most valuable service this bio performs: exploding the modern idea that a classical orchestra, let alone such a heroic one, must have meant doughty middle-aged men (as shown in most Titanic movies, including James Cameron’s version). In fact, it’s heartbreaking to realise just how very young these musicians were. Bandleader Hartley’s body, when recovered, was estimated around 25; he was actually 33. Only one of his bandmates was older. The youngest was just 20.
Honestly, had they been a Hollywood creation, the nonstop clichés would’ve been laughed off the screen. They were playing together as a group for the first time. For some, including Hartley, this was to be the last voyage prior to settling down. Several left fiancees behind—one of whom was pregnant. A couple had previously survived the collision of Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, with the Hawke a year or so earlier. For others this was their first voyage as ship’s musicians.
In surviving letters to family they are excited about their new, highly prestigious post; extraordinarily pathetic post-mortem but at the time entirely unremarkable. The Titanic was to have the best of musicians as she had of everything else, and they were it. The only pessimistic note on the eve of shipping out seems to have been sounded by pianist Theo Brailey’s father, noted Spiritualist Ronald Brailey, who… wait for it… expressed vague fears for his son’s safety. Yes, really.
Eventually, it becomes clear that there is just not quite enough here to sustain a full-blooded narrative. The ‘maybe’s and ‘possibly’s start piling up awkwardly right at the most crucial moment: there are a few casual contemporary mentions of the band as individuals during the voyage—they were popular, obliging and well-liked, albeit apparently the violins were a bit weak—but only one on the Night to Remember, and that fleeting: chipper little Jock Hume (he of the weakish violin) hurrying past a stewardess calling “Just going to give them a tune to cheer things up a bit!”
And then they were gone, and the tributes began (including ones from as far away as Australia) until the ‘heroic bandsmen’ became almost literally the public faces of mourning for the disaster. A few determinedly unsentimental types (including, unsurprisingly, G.B. Shaw) muttered crankily about pointless sacrifices, but even a century later they’re a tiny minority, and their viewpoint isn’t given much shrift here.
Which is in a way a shame, as there is actually room for consideration of the nature of heroism here, and might have livened the post-sinking chapters up considerably. Turner’s thesis, that the bandsmen’s stalwart stand was reassuring to a society worried—as societies do tend to be—about creeping moral and spiritual decay, is as ever solidly plausible. He conscientiously traces the families forward, uncovering the mildly interesting and sometimes rather sordid stuff that generally floats in the wake of such tragedies (of which the booking office trying to collect a picayune unpaid bill for uniform alterations off Hume’s parents has to take the prize).
But it all can’t help but feel a bit skimpy, both as to content and tone. The end of an era would seem to be an excellent time, if ever there was one, for an author to haul out the hyperbole and indulge in some detailed speculation.
On the other hand, reading through the many contemporary reports provided, it’s clear that the media of 1912 were likewise at something of a loss to explain their actions. They were simply good, God-fearing boys. Especially Hartley, their leader, who had apparently made it clear to friends in the years prior that he felt it would be a bandsman’s duty to stand by and help soothe passengers in the event of a like crisis. And… that was about it for insights. Even the inevitable seance held by the Braileys didn’t help much (besides providing some nice dramatic flourishes).
They were ordinary heroes in the finest sense, and I would heartily recommend their story as inspirational (the length and writing style make it very suitable for young adults, or even preteens with a bookish bent). I’m just not sure it’s worth recommending—save to Titanic completists, of course—from a purely literary standpoint.