Heroism in music takes many forms. The political heroism of a Sibelius or a Toscanini. Marian Anderson’s heroism of the spirit. The heroism of innovation: Bach, Richard Wagner, Charles Ives, Stravinsky. The quiet heroism of vocal coaches, chorus members and grade school music teachers: nameless people, but people without whose contributions to music’s fabric there would ultimately be no giants, no legendary stars.
The quietest, least known are often the most heroic.
Many years ago, when I was first encountering details of the liner Titanic and her tragic loss, I was introduced to a veritable pantheon of nameless heroes: men and women among the passengers who unselfishly gave up their lifeboat seats to others; stokers and engineers who kept the doomed vessel’s lights burning until almost the last moment; all those who died that others might live.
Among the many acts of heroism performed on the North Atlantic that cold night so many Aprils ago, none to me surpasses the contribution of Titanic’s bandsmen: Brailey, Bricoux, Clarke, Hume, Krins, Taylor, Woodward, and their leader, Wallace Hartley.
Titanic struck the berg which doomed her at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, which is 100 years ago this month.
Shortly after midnight, the musicians assembled in the forward first-class entrance, where passengers began gathering before going to the lifeboats.
The band’s music established a quick, bright tempo that kept the passengers’ feet moving to its beat.
Suspicion and even panic was averted by the musicians’ presence.
(“Why, if they’re playing here, things can’t be that bad.”) Later, when most passengers were on the promenade and boat decks, the band reassembled outside the gymnasium near the first class entrance’s starboard side.
Around 12:45 a.m., as the first lifeboat was being lowered, they began playing a brave counterpoint to the sound of shuffling feet and the increasing murmur of confused passengers.
Their music helped to bring order to the proceedings.
Their repertoire of marches, quicksteps and occasional waltz tunes were performed with coldstiffened fingers through the next hour and 20 minutes.
The last lifeboat was lowered at 2:05 a.m. But a few brief moments remained.
High on the boat deck, Titanic’s bandsmen paused in their music making. The deck beneath them began a slow, almost imperceptible slant forward.
Cold hands gripped instruments tightly, chilled fingers groped for taut strings. Bandmaster Hartley tapped his bow and spoke a title.
The strains of the well-loved “Londonderry Air” (“Danny Boy” to many) drifted across the calm waters now dotted with drifting lifeboats.
The slanting deck grew steeper, more slippery. Footing became more difficult.
The music ceased, then began again, thinly, as Hartley, perhaps in reverie, pulled his bow across the strings for a final time.
He was joined as, one by one, the other players picked up the familiar tune – the hymn played at the gravesides of fellow musicians departed, and Hartley’s own favorite, “Nearer My God, to Thee.”
At this point, it became impossible to stand without falling. The music’s sounds were lost in an increasingly thunderous roar.
Titanic’s stern rose high out of the water.
Lights that had stayed lit for so long – at the price of many lives – flickered, turned red as current failed, then went out forever.
Dark, now, against the starlit sky, Titanic rose almost upright, paused, then began a slow, inevitable slide…
Today, Titanic rests in decaying grandeur at the bottom of the North Atlantic, a memorial to all who lost their lives, a remembrance of humanity’s folly and our disregard of nature’s supremacy.
Titanic is cold and dark and silent now.
But above the agony of her loss and the grief for her dead soar the unselfish, heroic harmonies of her bandsmen – steadfast to the end, sharing their lives, their gift of music, so that others might die with dignity; sharing their deaths with Titanic’s dead so that all are surely inscribed in the Book of Life as heroes.
John P. Eaton is an authority on the Titanic: he is the co-author of five full-length books and many articles about the Titanic and has even dived on the wreck site. Eaton is the historian of the Titanic International Society. See www.TitanicInternationalSociety.org.