Remembering The Titanic's Intrepid Bandleader

Apr 12, 2012
Originally published on April 13, 2012 4:17 am

This weekend marks the centennial of the Titanic disaster. One hundred years ago Saturday, the ship that, as legend had it, "God himself couldn't sink," struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. It was about 20 minutes to midnight on April 14, 1912. Two hours and 40 minutes later, the Titanic was gone.

More than 1,500 people died that night. One of them was Wallace Hartley, the son of a church choirmaster in England; he'd left work as a bank teller for a career in music. Hartley conducted and played violin, and he worked some 80 maritime voyages before joining the Titanic as bandmaster.

In the book Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner, historian John Maxtone-Graham describes the 33-year-old Hartley as so dapper and hip to new music that he used the name "Hotley" in his wireless messages.

"Whenever he went to New York, he didn't go to the oyster houses or taverns that his fellow crewmen went to," Maxtone-Graham says. "He went to Tin Pan Alley looking for sheet music because he was hipped on getting the latest possible music to play for his passengers."

Hartley and his musicians became the stuff of legend as the Titanic was sinking, because they kept playing.

Like many of the details from that night, accounts of that episode vary. As Maxtone-Graham tells it, they played inside at first, then moved outdoors, "where there was no piano, no light, no chairs, no music stands, and played on that cold outer deck."

Their final song has been much debated. The hymn "Nearer, My God, To Thee" was long a favorite. The most famous Titanic chronicler, Walter Lord, originally thought it was another hymn, "Autumn." Maxtone-Graham says Lord later came to believe it was actually a waltz with a similar name.

"Thanks to Walter Lord, I think the real last tune they played was a little bittersweet waltz by Archibald Joyce," Maxtone-Graham says. "He gave it a French name, as many Edwardian creative people did. They thought if they made it French it would be a little more elegant, so he called it 'Songe d'Automne' — thoughts, or dreams, of autumn."

Whatever that final song, Maxton-Graham has come to think of Wallace Hartley, in those final hours on the Titanic, as a minister tending his flock.

"His flock were those musicians," he says. "He was taking care of their spiritual needs near the end of their lives by giving them a job they could do that would fill the time. My conviction is it gave as much comfort to the men who were playing as to the people who heard them."

All eight musicians on the Titanic, Hartley included, died on that April night 100 years ago.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This weekend marks the centennial of the Titanic disaster. One hundred years ago, the ship it was thought God himself couldn't sink, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. It was about 20 minutes before midnight on April 14th, 1912. Two hours and 40 minutes later, Titanic was gone. Over 1,500 died that night. We're going to remember one of them now, Wallace Hartley.

JOHN MAXTONE-GRAHAM: He started work as a teller in a bank, but within a very short time, switched.

MONTAGNE: Switched to music, says maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham, in his book "Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner." The son of a church choirmaster in England, Wallace Hartley conducted and played violin. He worked some eighty voyages before joining Titanic as bandmaster. Maxtone-Graham describes the 33-year-old Hartley as so dapper and hip to new music, he used the name "Hotley" in his wireless messages.

MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Whenever he went to New York, he didn't go to the oyster houses or the taverns that his fellow crewmen went to. He went to Tin Pan Alley looking for sheet music, because he was hipped on getting the latest possible music to play for his passengers.

MONTAGNE: Music like Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALEXANDER'S RAGTIME BAND")

MONTAGNE: Of course, Wallace Hartley and his musicians became the stuff of legend as Titanic was sinking - because they kept playing. Like many details that night, accounts vary, but as Maxtone-Graham tells it, first they played inside, and later wearing lifejackets.

MAXTONE-GRAHAM: They moved outdoors where there was no piano, no light, no chairs, no music stands, and played on that cold outer deck.

(SOUNDBITE SONG, "NEARER, MY GOD, TO THEE")

MONTAGNE: Their final song has been much debated. The hymn "Nearer, My God, To Thee" was long a favorite. The most famous Titanic chronicler, Walter Lord, originally thought it was the hymn tune, "Autumn." Lord later came to believe it was actually a waltz with a similar name.

MAXTONE-GRAHAM: Thanks to Walter Lord, I think the real last tune they played was a little bittersweet waltz by Archibald Joyce. He gave it a French name, as many Edwardian creative people did. They thought if they made it French it would be a little more elegant, so he called it 'Songe d'Automne' - thoughts, or dreams, of autumn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONGE D'AUTOMNE")

MONTAGNE: Whatever that final song, Maxton-Graham has come to think of Wallace Hartley, in those final hours on Titanic, as a minister tending his flock.

MAXTONE-GRAHAM: And his flock were those musicians. He was taking care of their spiritual needs near the end of their lives by giving them a job that they could do that would fill the time. My conviction is it gave as much comfort to the men who were playing as to the people who heard them.

MONTAGNE: All musicians on Titanic - eight men - including bandmaster Wallace Hartley, died that April night one hundred years ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.