Since writing my book, “The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic”, the most frequent question I’ve been asked is why the Titanic’s eight musicians continued to play on the deck even as the ship was going down. Were they told to do so by the Captain? Was it part of their job description? Did they think they would be saved?
While doing research for my book "The Band That Played On," I discovered that the band’s musicians were not employees of the White Star Line. They were employed by a Liverpool music agency that was in turn paid by the ship.
This arrangement was to impact on the dependents of the musicians who found, after the disaster, that they weren’t entitled to the compensation due to the relatives of those who signed the ship’s articles.
I believe the band took the courageous decision to play because of the moral character of their leader, the violinist Wallace Hartley.
As they weren’t ship’s employees they would have had the same rights as any passenger to leave the ship by the lifeboats supplied. The Captain could have recommended that they play, but he couldn’t have ordered them to do so.
I believe the band took the courageous decision to play because of the moral character of their leader, the violinist Wallace Hartley. This musician, who’d previously played on both the Mauretania and the Lusitania, was from the small town of Colne in Lancashire, England, and was raised in the Methodist church. His father was the choirmaster there and responsible for introducing the hymn ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ to the congregation.
By all accounts Hartley was a highly principled person and a devout Christian. He’d recently been engaged to a young Christian girl, Maria Robinson, and they planned to marry after he’d completed a few trips on the Titanic. He was personable, cheerful and would always attend church when he was back on land.
There are two interesting comments that he made to colleagues that shed some light on why he behaved as he did. The first was mentioned by a musician on the Celtic called John Carr who had worked with Hartley. I don’t suppose he (Hartley) waited to be sent for, but after finding how dangerous the situation was he probably called his men together and began playing,” said Carr. “ I know he often said that music was a bigger weapon for stopping disorder than anything on earth. He knew the value of the weapon he had, and I think he proved his point.”
The second was said to Ellwand Moody, a musician on the Mauretania, who had served under Hartley. He told a British newspaper; “I remember one day I asked him what he would do if he were ever on a sinking ship and he replied ‘I don’t think I would do better than play ‘Oh God Our Help in Ages Past’ or ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’.”
So it appears almost certain that Wallace Hartley had contemplated being on a sinking ship and had already decided how he would respond. He believed that music could prevent panic and create calm. He had also chosen his final piece of music.
I didn’t discover any stories from the lives of these musicians that led me to think that they were born with the gene of courage. As with most people who perform heroic acts I suspect they didn’t know what they were made of until the moment came when they had to reveal it. But I also think that without the moral and spiritual caliber of Wallace Hartley, the man to whom they looked for musical guidance, they may not have discovered their inner resources.
Steve Turner is a freelance journalist and author of "The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic" (Thomas Nelson 2011).