Raggin' the Waves

Any musician who has ever played a potted palm gig -- where stuffed shirts stuff themselves with stuffed sole while conversing loudly over the music -- will enjoy the in-joke shared among the band members as portrayed in director James Cameron's epic film Titanic.The musicians briefly discuss the futility of performing while the sinking ship's passengers rush toward the lifeboats. "What's the use?," sighs one of the string players. "Nobody's listening."With just a hint of sarcasm, bandmaster-violinist Wallace Hartley reminds his colleague, "They don't listen to us at dinner, either," and he calls the next number.Cameron's script adds another ironical observation: As a third-class passenger runs for his life past the band on the boat deck, he comments, "Music to drown by -- now I know I'm in first class!"When it's clear that the end is near, bandmaster Hartley (ably portrayed by Jonathan Evans Jones) dismisses the small orchestra, and the musicians (portrayed by Swiss chamber group I Salonisti) move slowly off into the chaos of the crowd. But when Hartley -- resigned to the inevitable -- tucks his violin back under his chin and begins to bow the plaintive melody of "Nearer My God to Thee," one by one his musicians return and join in. Later, with water rapidly rising on the deck, Hartley sincerely and somberly declares, "Gentlemen, it has been a privilege to play with you tonight."Hartley's imagined pronouncement, the return of his colleagues and especially that final morbid hymn function well as dramatic devices -- in fact, well-proven dramatic devices: that sentimental scene is one of several sequences Cameron lifted nearly verbatim from British director Roy Baker's 1958 film A Night to Remember.But this is the story of Titanic's real-life musicians.Despite the new film's clever dialogue, no actual Titanic survivors reported that Hartley said anything except to call out the "numbers" from the White Star Line's songbook, and earwitnesses could not agree on the actual final tune played before the big ship sank. Nevertheless, Cameron's scene accurately reflects the spirit of the real band's selfless sense of duty in the face of certain disaster.All eight musicians, including Hartley, perished along with more than 1,500 others when the R.M.S. Titanic plunged into the North Atlantic at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912.Not surprisingly, many other historic and dramatic treatments of the world's worst shipwreck have focused on the ill-fated musicians. "The bravery of these men, trying to bring hope and comfort to others without a thought for their own safety, captured the public's imagination all over the world," wrote Walter Lord, author of A Night to Remember and its 1986 follow-up, The Night Lives On. In that second book, Lord dedicates an entire chapter to the band, titled "The Sound of Music."Palm Court OrchestraHartley's ensemble normally played in the first-and second-class lounges and in the elegant, 500-seat dining saloon designed to resemble the Palace of Versailles. Titanic researchers believe that shortly after the ship collided with an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. Sunday, April 14, the musicians received orders to perform music to calm passengers who were being ushered toward the lifeboats. Hartley's band was actually a quintet, also including violinist John "Jock" Hume, cellist J. W. Woodward, bassist Fred Clarke and pianist Percy Taylor, who may have doubled on cello.British-born musicologist and keyboardist Ian Whitcomb, a longtime student of the music and musicians of the White Star Line, says Hartley -- already an experienced band leader at age 33 -- had handpicked all eight of Titanic's musicians. "These boys had experience from the school of hard knocks -- from theater pit orchestras and music halls, from grand hotels and dim cafes, but all with solid classical training," Whitcomb says. Their assignment on the Titanic relegated them to the background -- playing softly behind the potted palms, so to speak, hence the term "palm court music.""There was no dance floor on board Titanic," Whitcomb maintains, "but palm court orchestras had become very popular in the early 1900s. The Titanic had a band to play ambient music, to create an atmosphere very unobtrusively, and to take requests." In homage to the shipboard musicians' versatility, Whitcomb produced a 1997 disc, Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage (Rhino), reviving 23 of the 352 marches, waltzes, cakewalks and operatic pieces listed in the White Star Line songbook.Besides Hartley's quintet, the ship had three other musicians -- cellist Roger Bricoux, viola player George Krins and probably pianist Ted Brailey. This trio performed exclusively in the reception room outside the ship's trendy Cafe Parisien. Bricoux, a resident of Lille, France, and Krins, a Belgian by birth, added to the cafe's continental ambiance. Bricoux had previously accompanied pianist Brailey on board the Cunard liner Carpathia, making it a reasonable guess that Brailey completed the Titanic's cafe trio.Poorly Paid MusiciansMusicologist Whitcomb imagines that -- before the iceberg was sighted that Sunday night -- the musicians would have knocked off work around 11 p.m. They probably headed for their cramped quarters down on E Deck, among the second-class passengers, right next door to the galley's clanging potato-cleaning machine. "The parsimonious White Star Line had taken the musicians aboard as second-class passengers in order to avoid paying union rates," Whitcomb charges.The lodging adjacent to noisy kitchen machinery was merely another indignity heaped upon the poorly paid musicians. "That the band was treated so shabbily by their employers was typical of the relationship between master and servant in those days," Whitcomb says. "Musicians came to the ball though the back door, the servants' entrance."The musicians' dual professional/passenger status probably derived from their position as subcontractors, hired by booking agents C.W and F.N. Black of Liverpool, who had developed a monopoly among ocean liners. At least some of the eight musicians must have been members of Britain's Amalgamated Musicians Union, but the union was notoriously weak at that time, leaving their membership at the mercy of skinflint middlemen like the Blacks.In fact, before 1912, maritime musicians earned the same pay as ordinary seamen: 6 pounds and 10 shillings a month (roughly $15), plus a monthly uniform allowance of 10 shillings ($1.20). But as 1912 dawned, Lord points out in The Night Lives On, "Since {transatlantic} musicians worked for the Blacks or not at all, they had to take what the Blacks were willing to pay them -- which turned out to be a sharp cut in salary." They now earned only 4 pounds per month (roughly $10) and no uniform allowance at all; they had to pay out of their own pockets for their embroidered outfits.Just as the Titanic's steerage-versus-stateroom accommodations sharply divided proletariat passengers from millionaire capitalists, the musicians' own economic status vividly mirrored the class struggles which characterized the early years of the 20th century.In any case, soon after Titanic began taking on water shortly before midnight on April 14, Hartley's orchestra was ordered by ship's officers -- perhaps by Capt. Edward J. Smith himself -- to play "light and cheerful" tunes while passengers made their way to the lifeboats. The ensemble responded with a mix of ragtime and popular melodies. Survivors recall hearing numbers such as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Oh, You Beautiful Doll," as well as familiar light classical and music hall songs such as "In the Shadows," the big British hit of 1911.Swan Song ControversyA significant historical dispute concerning the band's legendary performance of the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee" rages to this day on dozens of Titanic-oriented World Wide Web sites as well as on the op-ed pages of the "Los Angeles Times". Ian Whitcomb penned a Jan. 12 piece for the "Times", headlined "Titanic Sank With a Waltz, Not a Hymn." The following week, the new film's historical movie consultant, John Altman, responded with a letter to the editor praising Whitcomb's "diligent work" but insisting that the hymn fulfilled the spirit, if not the facts, of the dramatic scene on the deck of the Titanic.Both Lord and Whitcomb contend Hartley would never have called for that sad song in that situation, even though millions of people -- including James Cameron -- still believe "Nearer My God to Thee" was the band's swan song."The idea of the band playing that hymn is nothing but a silly, sentimental myth," Whitcomb charges angrily. "I'm tired of seeing the public accept such easy myths. It just sentimentalizes the whole thing."Titanic director James Cameron defends his decision to use "Nearer My God to Thee," because, "It felt more emotional to me." In a Jan. 16 interview on CNBC-TV, Cameron also pointed out that, "Hartley's body was recovered and taken to England for his funeral where they sang 'Nearer My God to Thee,' at his sister's request, which leads me to believe that's what he did play." But Hartley's Lancashire funeral -- a send-off worthy of the Royals, with 30,000 mouners lining the streets -- took place a solid month after the disaster. During that time, the hymn legend had been widely propagated, convincing the bandmaster's grieving family along with the rest of the world.Hartley himself -- Whitcomb argues -- told a journalist in 1911 that if ever faced with a nautical calamity, he'd have the band play "lively stuff, of course. None of your hymns, though I dearly love them."Walter Lord, the world's best-known Titanic historian, agrees that the hymn tale rings untrue: "The Carpathia {the Cunard ship that picked up Titanic's 705 survivors} had no sooner reached New York than the story spread that the band went down playing 'Nearer My God to Thee.' The idea was so appealing that it instantly became part of the Titanic saga."Whitcomb traced the legend to a female survivor who, as a lifeboat passenger, couldn't have been within hearing distance of the acoustic string band. The Yellow Press of the day -- which spread dozens of wildly inaccurate descriptions of the disaster -- just took her word for it, and the story snowballed from there.In the following years, allusions to the histrionic hymn appeared in hundreds of poems and folk songs commemorating the famous shipwreck, authored by artists as disparate as novelist Thomas Hardy and bluesman Huddie Ledbetter. The hymn also filled London's famous Albert Hall, performed by more than 500 musicians paying tribute to their departed colleagues at a concert conducted by composer Sir Edward Elgar."Nearer My God" was also performed by the Titanic band as portrayed by members of the London Sinfonia in the 1958 film version of Lord's A Night to Remember. "The film took what Lord thought was the enormous liberty of allowing the band's cellist to sing {the hymn}," writes Brandeis University historian Steven Biel in his 1997 book, Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster.To set the record straight, Lord quotes Titanic survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie (portrayed in the new film by a blustery Bernard Fox), who remained with the ship to the end: "If 'Nearer My God to Thee' was one of the selections, I assuredly would have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death."So what number did the band actually play as its final farewell to this life? Lord and Whitcomb think it may well have been the melancholy popular waltz "Songe d'Automne," by English composer Archibald Joyce.As stoicism inevitably gave way to terror on the doomed ship's decks, fewer and fewer passengers paid attention to the music. When Titanic began to founder, most lifeboats had rowed out of earshot, and only a handful of the desperate swimmers who dove into the cold, calm sea were rescued from the icy waters. Those lucky few included telegraph operator Harold Bride, who -- after he'd been swept off the deck while launching the last of the lifeboats -- heard the orchestra playing a tune he called "Autumn," but which was listed as "#114 Songe d'Automne" in the White Star songbook."The way the band kept playing was a noble thing," Bride later testified. "The last I saw of the band, when I was floating out to sea with my life belt on, it was still playing 'Autumn.' How they ever did it I cannot imagine."Filmmaker Cameron shares Bride's amazement. "Whatever possessed them, Wallace Hartley and his orchestra, to play nearly to the end like that?," he asks rhetorically.Whether he actually played it that night or not, however, bandmaster Hartley will be forever identified with "Nearer My God to Thee." The opening bars of the hymn are carved onto his hillside gravestone in Lancashire, right above a life-size sculpture of a violin.Sidebar OneThe Musicians of the TitanicThese biographical sketches were culled from Walter Lord's books, Michael Davies' book Titanic: The Death and Life of a Legend, Ian Whitcomb's liner notes to Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage (Rhino) and from Titanic Web sites, especially British researcher Philip Hind's excellent "Passengers and Crew" home page at www.rmplc.co.uk/eduweb/sites/phind/.Wallace Henry HartleyBandmaster-violin. Raised in Lancashire, Hartley was the son of a Methodist choirmaster. At the time of his death, the 33-year-old musician resided at Surreyside, in Dewsbury. Hartley inherited his father's leadership abilities. Before joining the White Star Line, the violinist led orchestras in Harrogate and Bridlington and on board Cunard liners the Mauritania and the Celtic. Clean shaven, Hartley often flashed a somewhat crooked smile as he called the "numbers," hundreds of which he had committed to memory. The White Star Line chartered a Commercial Cable Company ship, the Mackay-Bennett, to search for victims of the catastrophe. When crewmen from that floating morgue recovered Hartley's corpse on May 4, they noted his effects: a silver cigarette holder, a gold cigar holder, a nickel watch and coins amounting to 16 shillings and 16 pence. Some reports say that Hartley's violin case was also strapped to his body. Hartley's remains were returned to his childhood home, in Colne, Lancashire, where 30,000 people turned out on a sunny day to give him a hero's funeral. A fancy horse-drawn hearse carried his rosewood casket along a half-mile procession, while seven bands played tunes he knew so well. As the coffin lowered slowly into the hillside grave, a dozen Boy Scouts played "The Last Post" on their bugles. Hartley left a fiance in Ballston Spa, Yorkshire.W. Theodore "Ted" BraileyPiano-organ. Approximately 27 years old, Brailey lived in Ladbroke Grove, London. He had previously worked with French cellist Roger Bricoux on board the Cunard steamer Carpathia before joining the White Star Line. Brailey was a versatile keyboardist who also probably played the newfangled Aeolian Electrified Organ, the primary instrument featured in the stately "White Star March," on Ian Whitcomb's 1997 CD. In a surviving photograph, the dapper Brailey sports a top hat and carnation.Roger BricouxCello. Little is known of the musician from Lille, France, except that he had previously performed along with Ted Brailey on board the liner Carpathia. For his final engagement, Monsieur Bricoux was featured in the trio that held forth at the Titanic's fashionable Cafe Parisien. Bricoux cut a dashing figure, with a full head of dark, wavy hair, deep-set eyes and full lips. His body was never recovered.John Frederick Preston "Fred" ClarkeDouble bass. A resident of Smithtown Road in Liverpool (Titanic's home port), Clarke was approximately 35 years old at the time of his death. When his body was pulled from the icy Atlantic, he was wearing his musician's uniform with matching green socks, and a gold ring with his initials. Clarke was buried at the Mt. Olivet Roman Catholic Cemetery in Halifax.John Law "Jock" HumeFirst violin. Not only was 28-year-old Jock Hume an agile violinist, he was the most affable of the Titanic's eight musicians, a quality that served him well when taking requests. "Hume was a past master at the request game," says musicologist Ian Whitcomb. "When the musicians would split up and go strolling from room to room or table to table, he proved a terrific busker -- could play anything so long as you hum him a few bars." The Scottish musician's body was recovered along with an "empty purse." He was buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with 150 other Titanic victims. While the world honored the fallen musicians as heroes, their Liverpool booking agents continued business as usual. Hume's grieving father back in Dumfries received a bill from the Black Agency asking him to remit more than 14 shillings to settle young Jock's uniform account, including a lyre lapel insignia and the sewing of White Star buttons upon his tunic.George KrinsViola. A native of Belgium, Krins struck a devil-may-care pose in a period photograph with his fedora's brim angled sharply to the left, while his eyes sparkled in a mischievous grin. Apparently in his mid-thirties, Krins joined Bricoux (and possibly Brailey) in the Titanic's Cafe Parisien Trio. His body was never recovered.Percy C. TaylorPiano. Somewhere in his early 40s, with receding hairline and full handlebar mustache, Taylor appears to have been the eldest and perhaps the most experienced of the Titanic musicians. He probably doubled on cello, and so he may have been among the string orchestra which played on the ship's port side boat deck toward the end, even though there was no piano on the deck. A resident of Clapham, London, the ocean claimed Taylor's remains.John Wesley WoodwardCello. Although he was only 32 when he died in the ocean, Woodward was probably the most prominent of Titanic's eight musicians. His vocalist brother, T.W. Woodward, was a well-known tenor with Oxford's Magdalene College Choir, where the cellist was scheduled to perform at the college's annual dinner in May 1912. Woodward -- who sported a monocle -- had previously played with the Duke of Devonshire's orchestra in Eastbourne before joining the White Star Line around 1909, traveling to Jamaica, the Mediterranean and on several transatlantic crossings. Six months before the Titanic's maiden voyage, Woodward had been in his quarters on her sister ship Olympic, off the Isle of Wight, when a Royal Naval cruiser called the Hawke slammed into the liner's hull, flooding his compartment. The cellist narrowly avoided injury in that accident, but he must not have taken it as an omen because -- for the first time in his maritime career -- Woodward brought his best cello along for the ride on Titanic.Sidebar TwoRecord ReviewsMusic to Drown ByJames Horner. "Music from the Motion Picture Titanic (Sony Classical).I Salonisti. And the Band Played On (London/PolyGram).Ian Whitcomb & The White Star Orchestra. Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage (Rhino Records).James Horner's sonorous -- albeit highly synthesized -- soundtrack album from the new Titanic movie shot to number one on the pop charts soon after the film's release last December. It's been 15 long years since a motion picture soundtrack -- "Chariots of Fire" -- topped the charts.As James Cameron's epic movie sails toward its March 23 date with destiny at the Academy Awards, demand for the soundtrack remains so great that Sony Classical has commissioned emgergency pressings. More than 664,000 discs were sold during the first week of February alone, an all-but-unheard-of commercial achievement for a soundtrack, especially one that includes only one real "song," Celine Dion vocalizing "My Heart Will Go On."Because the soundtrack is flying out of record stores at such an astounding pace (by the end of February, its worldwide sales will total nearly 3 million units), industry insiders believe Sony Classical will soon compile a second soundtrack. That's good news for listeners who find themselves mesmerized by the wordless vocals of Norway pop star Sissel and the haunting uilleann pipe playing of Eric Rigler. With luck, a second soundtrack will feature music by Gaelic Storm and Skydance -- two Irish-style bands which made the music for the steerage Saturday night dance scene, and perhaps a version of "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine," a special song shared by the film's star-crossed lovers.Although Horner's soundtrack wins the sales competition hands down, two other new Titanic discs do a better job of recreating the actual music the ship's passengers would likely have heard.Ian Whitcomb -- the 56-year-old Surrey-born ex-pop star (his one hit, the quirky "You Turn Me On," graced "Billboard"'s Top Ten in July 1965) -- has authored a dozen books on ragtime and pop music, and has extensively researched the music of the so-called "palm court orchestras." Last year, he recorded an album dedicated to the music and musicians of the White Star Line, Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage (Rhino Records).In keeping with his convictions about Hartley's choice of material on that nightmare gig, Whitcomb's 23 tracks conclude not with "Nearer My God to Thee," but with the waltz "Song d'Automne (Dream of Autumn)." Later, a surprise bonus track reprises a ragtime beat with "Raggin' the Waves."Meanwhile, I Salonisti, the Swiss chamber quintet which portrays the Titanic's orchestra in the new movie, have released "And the Band Played On". The 15-track disc climaxes with "Nearer My God to Thee," as also performed in the film. Like Whitcomb, I Salonisti worked from the White Star Line songbook, but display an understandable preference for the intermezzoes, suites and fantasias, while Whitcomb's record covers more ragtime and vaudeville material.The only tune which appears on both discs is "Glow-Worm," a fact which allows the two discs to complement each other rather than cover identical numbers.While I Salonisti's disc pleases as a quaint classical exercise, Whitcomb's labor of love -- recently nominated for two Grammys -- stands out as an ear-opening act of archivism, as well as a damn delightful production of long-forgotten music. Few of the posh palm court orchestras that flourished just after the turn of the century ever got a chance to record, so Whitcomb's revival of the White Star arrangements makes an important contribution to the history of this century's pop music."It really was the first lounge music," Whitcomb says, "and it's been despised over the years. Composers like Archibald Joyce, who wrote 'Song d'Automne,' and Leslie Stuart, who wrote 'Lily of Laguna,' these lovely English composers had their music wiped away by ragtime and jazz."Music As Heard on the Fateful Voyage resurrects those neglected gems, and other tunes such as a playful "Glow-Worm," the sprightly "Moonstruck" and the rhythmic "Merry Widow Waltz." The copiously illustrated disc also pays appropriate tribute to Wallace Hartley and his bandmates, both in Whitcomb's liner notes and in the veritably recreated yet vigorous performances of the music itself.If they could be resurrected from their watery graves to hear Whitcomb's White Star Orchestra at work, Hartley and his boys would certainly tap their instruments with their bows and nod their approval, with a hearty "Well done!"For more information, access Ian Whitcomb's Web site at www.picklehead.com/ian.html.Russ Tarby is Senior Editor covering books and music for the Syracuse New Times in upstate New York.

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