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By Roger Hall
The year 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest sea tragedies in modern history -- The sinking of the Titanic at 2:20 a.m. on 15 April 1912.
With the release of several popular films, especially the best one, A NIGHT TO REMEMER (1958), also the multi-Oscar-winning TITANIC (1997), there continues to be a dispute as to what was the last tune played on that fateful night when the Titanic sank within only a few hours and over 1,500 passengers perished, many of them never recovered.
As it turns out, none of the films has the correct tune as the last one played on the Titanic.
The Titanic had two different groups of musicians that played on that first and last voyage: a trio of violin, cello and piano who played just outside the A la Carte Restaurant and Cafe Parisien; and a quintet of musicians who played at other locations, led by violinist Wallace Hartley.
The musicians in the above picture are [top to bottom]: Fred Clark, Percy Taylor, G. Krins, Wallace Hartley [center of the picture], Ted Brailey, Jock Hume, George Woodward, and Roger Bricoux [not shown]. All of them died when the Titanic sunk and today they are fondly remembered for their bravery, as they should be.
Picture of the musicians from the CD: TITANIC - Music As Heard On The Fateful Voyage.
What Was The Last Tune Played On The Titanic?
The most popular claim has been the final tune played by the musicians was a hymn, either one titled "Autumn" [show above] or "Nearer My God To Thee," which has at least three different tunes associated with it.
The American version is Lowell Mason's 1856 hymn tune, "Bethany." This beautiful hymn tune by the "dean of American hymnwriters" who also composed the popular Christmas carol, "Joy to the World," is the one heard most often in modern times and is the one played in the 1997 film, TITANIC. Another version is John B. Dyke's 1861 hymn tune, "Horbury" -- played and sung in A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. And a third version is Sir Arthur Sullivan's 1872 Methodist hymn tune, "Proprior Deo." Three great hymns by three of the greatest hymn writers of the 19th century. In her interesting book A Hymn for Eternity, Yvonne Carroll writes that "Proprior Deo" was Titanic bandmaster Wallace Hartley's favorite hymn and was played at his funeral as he had earlier requested. But did Hartley ask his fellow Titanic musicians to play this hymn as the last tune before the Titanic sank into the ocean? Probably not, though it makes for a very touching
According to the authoritative book by Walter Lord, The Night Lives On, it was NOT a hymn but a popular waltz tune that was played as the final number by the Titanic musicians.
That tune was "Songe d'Automne (Autumn Dream). How ironic this lovely melancholy waltz would be played as the last tune!
According to Walter Lord's book the Second Wireless Operator, Harold Bride, mentioned hearing the tune played by the ensemble:
"Songe d'Automne," was generally known simply as "Autumn." Composed by Archibald Joyce, it was never very popular in America, but was a major hit in London in 1912. Played at roller-skating rinks, cafes, and the like, Harold Bride would probably have known it, and he might well have assumed that his American interviewers understood what he meant. Certainly Bride never referred to "Autumn" as a hymn in his original interview of April 19. He specifically mentioned the tune three different times, but always casually, like a popular song that needed no further explanation.
Why did some passengers claim to have heard "Nearer My God To Thee"?
One reason might be it seemed an appropriate tune to play at that time of desperation and loss. Another possibility is that "Songe d'Automne" would have been played at a slow tempo and therefore could have been mistaken for the hymn tune.
Whichever tune was played, and it will probably never be settled conclusively, both "Songe d'Automne" and "Nearer My God To Thee" are wonderful tunes and should be played in connection with the Titanic.
What about the other music played by the White Star Line musician's during that voyage?
Besides British light classical tunes such as "In The Shadows" and the lovely waltz, "Destiny," there were American popular song hits like, "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" and several Irving Berlin hits, "That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
Another popular American song the musicians probably played on the Titanic voyage was...
"Waiting For The Robert E. Lee"
This song was published in 1912 with words by L. Wolfe Gilbert and music by Lewis F. Muir. It was introduced at the Winter Garden in New York by popular singer, Al Jolson, who became famous for his starring role in the first film with spoken dialogue and songs, THE JAZZ SINGER (1927). This song was sung in that film but by Bobbie Gordon instead of Jolson. It was later sung by Judy Garland in the Hollywood musical, BABES ON BROADWAY (1941), and by Jolson's dubbed voice in THE JOLSON STORY (1946).
Hear "Waiting For The Robert E. Lee" and "Songe d'Automne" on these two recommended CDs:
TITANIC - Music As Heard On The Fateful Voyage
The White Star Orchestra, conducted by Ian Whitcomb
"Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" is included in this sheet music collection:
Peg o' My Heart and
Other Favorite Song Hits
A Hymn for Eternity:
The Story of Wallace Hartley, Titanic Bandmaster
by Yvonne Carroll
Do you have a Titanic story to share about the music or musicians?
Send it to:
If you want to hear the musicians (a group known as I Salonisti) beautifully playing "Nearer My God To Thee" from the film, TITANIC, a new anniversary edition CD has been released, which also contains "Songe d'Automne" (Song of Autumn):