In books, plays, films, and stories about the Titanic, one story is told in nearly every one of them and that is the story of the Titanic's band, bravely and nobly played "Nearer My God To Thee" as water is coming up and everyone else is struggling for survival all around them. Did they really do this? Did they play "Nearer My God To Thee" as many believe? Or was it "Autumn", as some others believe. In this post, I hope to examine and determine what happened that night to the best of my abilities.
There are some things we do know about the band. They were actually two separate bands which played in different parts of the ship at different times. They likely combined into one band during the sinking. Wallace Hartley was the bandleader. We know that they played during the sinking. No survivor has discounted that story. We also know that at some point, they played in the Lounge at first (Jack Thayer's account) and then moved on the Boat Deck level of the Grand Staircase where there was a Steinway piano. Eventually, they did move outside to the Boat Deck. Beyond that, survivor's accounts vary. Since none of the members of the band survived, we will never know what exactly happened. However, I will do my best to answer the questions that have been debated using eyewitness testimonies and a little speculation on my part.
The first question is, did the band play on until the bitter end?
Two detractors that I know of are 1st class passengers Archibald Gracie and A.H. Barkworth. Gracie said in one of his speeches that he saw the band lay down their instruments. Barkworth said in a newspaper account, "The next time I passed where the band had been stationed, the members of it had thrown down their instruments and were not to be seen. But I shall never forget the fierce jarring notes of that waltz they played.”
The supporters of the claim were Harold Bride, Helen Churchill Candee, Frank Prentice, Thomas Ranger, and Edward Brown.
Harold Bride gave an interview while he was on the Carpathia and said, "...the band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing Autumn then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic on her nose, with her after-quartet sticking straight up in the air, began to settle - slowly.... the way the band kept playing was a noble thing..... and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing Autumn. How they ever did it I cannot imagine. That, and the way Phillips (the senior wireless operator) kept sending after the Captain told him his life was his own, and to look out for himself, are two things that stand out in my mind over all the rest..."
1st class steward Edward Brown talked about the band during the British Inquiry and said:
“There is one other matter I want you to tell us about as you were on the ship to the end. Do you know what the Band were doing at the last?”
“I do not remember hearing the band stop playing. They were playing for a long time, but I do not remember hearing them stop.”
“Where would the band be gathered; where would they play, do you know?”
“Right on the forward companion on the very top - on the boat deck forward companion.”
“Were they playing at the time when you were dealing with this collapsible boat from the top of the Officers' quarters?”
“Up to as late as that your memory serves you?”
“Yes, they were playing then.”
The next question I would like to address is, what was the last song played?
Junior Wireless Operator Harold Bride said, "From the aft came the tunes of the band. It was a ragtime tune, I don't know what. Then there was 'Autumn'. Phillips ran aft and that was the last time I ever saw him."
Barkworth said, "The next time I passed where the band had been stationed, the members of it had thrown down their instruments and were not to be seen. But I shall never forget the fierce jarring notes of that waltz they played.”
Gracie mentioned that he only heard light waltzes and ragtime.
There are many more that said that the last song was NMGTT including Frank Prentice, Eva Hart, Esther Hart, Helen Churchill Candee, Edwina Troutt, Edward Brown, and Jacob Gibbons.
The final question I would like to address is, if it was "Nearer My God To Thee", what version did they play?
There were three versions:
"Bethany" was written in 1856 by Lowell Mason and was used in James Cameron's 1997 film. It has been the most used version of the hymn.
"Horbury" was written in 1861 by John Dykes and was used in "A Night To Remember".
"Propior Deo" was written in 1872 by Andrew Sullivan and has never been used in any film. It was used mainly by British Methodists and was likely sung by Wallace Hartley, the bandleader and a Methodist, while he was growing up.
The band played on. The fact that Harold Bride was in close proximity (about 50 feet away) and he heard them when he came out at 2:17 A.M. pretty much proves that point. Then factor in that the passengers and crew also heard them. Titanic historian George Behe suggests that when Gracie and Barkworth saw the band put down their instruments, they may have been going down to their cabins and getting their lifebelts since it was noted by one passenger early on that they had no lifebelt and later it was noted by another passenger that they did. They played until about 2:18 A.M. when the ship began her final plunge and water came up to where they were. At about that point, it is likely that went their separate ways to their fates. It wasn't as late as Bride said because they were swept away about at the same time as Bride landed in the water. Bride may have either just not remembered or thought he heard them which really would have been the tune going on in his head. That water was pretty cold so, who knows what Bride was thinking. It would have diminished his senses greatly.
The question of what song they played has been the subject of much debate. It has been suggested that since Harold Bride was in such close proximity as opposed to the others who were either watching and listening from the safety of the lifeboats or much further aft towards the stern, he must be right. I am not so sure. In the area where Bride was, there was much shouting and screaming as water was flooding the Promenade Deck one deck below and there were also sounds of the creaking and moaning of the ship. It would have been pandemonium and chaos. Bride likely heard a few notes that the band was playing clearly. Ever since Walter Lord speculated that the Bride was really playing the ragtime "Songe d'Automne" in "The Night Lives On", many people have accepted that that is what Bride meant. I respectfully disagree. "Autumn" was also a popular hymn during that time. Pretty much everyone went to church at that time and Bride would have almost certainly heard it during some of the services. When you listen to it, the tune sounds very similar to "Nearer My God To Thee". Since so many said that it was "Nearer My God To Thee" (even though some of them may have said that that was the last song because others said so), I believe that Bride barely heard it over the confusion and noise, would not have concentrated, and assumed that it was "Autumn". Those in the boats, however, would have been able to concentrate on what they were hearing and seeing. The water was pretty calm, almost like a lake. That would have allowed the sound to carry further. To add to the evidence of my belief that it was NMGTT, Hartley was asked shortly before he went on the Titanic if he was ever on a sinking ship, what would he play. Hartley replied that he would play either "O God Our Help in Ages Past" or "Nearer My God To Thee" (which was one of his favorites). It has been said that NMGTT would have caused panic, but Hartley once said, “ I know he often said that music was a bigger weapon for stopping disorder than anything on Earth." NMGTT would have brought people to their knees as they prepared for eternity and since nearly everyone was in some way religious, would have brought comfort in knowing that they were about to meet their Savior.
The version has been confusing to me. Honestly, I would like a scene where he played as his final song the version he heard growing up, but it wasn't a popular version. I doubt that the other bandmembers would have known it and not as many would have recognized it. Therefore, I believe that it was "Bethany". It was recognized by so many people and it was such a popular version that the other bandmembers would have very likely known it.
You may or may not agree with me, but one thing is certain. The band played to keep the spirits of the passengers and crew up as the ship went down and the lifeboats were loaded and lowered right in front of them. They never made an effort to enter a lifeboat and had the well being of the passengers at the forefront of their minds, even if it cost them their lives. All of them were true heroes and deserve the honor they have gotten.
If you want to research and draw your own conclusions, I recommend the following websites:
If you want to research and draw your own conclusions, I recommend the following websites: