And Titanic's Band Played On Print
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And Titanic’s Band Played On: 100 Years of a Musical Mystery

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A multimedia presentation by Thomas Larson

Twenty-twelve (2012) marks the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic, the great ship that hit an iceberg and went down with some 1500 people, two-thirds of its passengers and crew, who lost their lives in the freezing North Atlantic.

Today we see another maritime disaster with the Costa Concordia, a cruise ship larger than Titanic. Mercifully fewer than 20 of the 4,200 aboard died, a great achievement, considering the panic and confusion and the me-first behavior of the captain.

Join Thomas Larson for a retelling of the undying mystery of Titanic’s eight musicians—their music, their fate, their remarkable afterlife.

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What are the myths that surround Titanic’s band? Did they calm the fears of—and add dignity to—the doomed passengers and crew by playing until the end? Was the tune they played as the boat sank, “Nearer My God to Thee”? How long did the band last? How did their hometowns honor them as heroes, the most famous light orchestra in the history of music?

Larson, author of The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” presents a multimedia evening of Titanic lore and legend, music and movie clips, which includes: a brief overview of music and maritime disasters; the salon repertoire of the period and the tunes the band probably played that last night; profiles of the seven musicians as well as their leader, violinist Wallace Hartley; differing ear- and eyewitness accounts of the band’s heroism; and a trove of photos, set pieces from movies and documentaries, songs that spread the myth, and recorded interviews with survivors about the band that played on.

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"The Unsinkable Music of Titanic"

Among the Titanic’s many tales of grace under pressure—the wardrobe change into white tie and tails of Benjamin Guggenheim who wished to drown “like a gentleman”; the gallant refusal of Mrs. Isidor Straus to board a lifeboat and separate from her Macy’s-owning husband, saying “Where he goes, I go”—is that of the eight musicians who played as the great ship foundered and whose legend is writ larger than any of the heroic dead. What an anomaly: the selfless artist who plays and dies for others. Indeed, the story of the band’s bravery, led by the indomitable Wallace Hartley, captures the major archetypes with which the Titanic, now entering a second century of folklore, still holds us in its thrall: class, romance, chivalry, greed, and hopelessness, coalescing at one grand moment when the transcendent nature of music rebuffed the crush of indifferent fate.

Take greed, for instance. Prior to 1912, onboard musicians were part of the liner’s crew. In 1911, the Black brothers of Liverpool (musical outsourcers of the day) changed their lot by agenting players to employers. To the Titanic’s White Star line, they offered musicians at lower wages, cramming them into third-class accommodations and bypassing the fought-for benefits of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union. Like today, the band, all veterans of transatlantic voyages, took a pay cut so they could work.

Or take chivalry. The all-male, mostly portable orchestra was doomed when an iceberg cut open the ship’s starboard hull, April 14, 1912, at 11:40 pm—not because of their class but because of the era’s code: men sacrificed themselves to save women and children and to save face with other men, their noble equals. This belief kept the men (five Brits, one Scot, one Frenchman, one Belgian) playing as much as their nervousness and their fate-thrust role as artist-psychologists—first, prescribing calm, with ragtime and waltzes, last, embodying sorrow, with elegies and hymns. How poignant it must have been to provoke such feelings in 2200 terrified people, and keep the tunes going.

So much about this catastrophe haunts us. But consider also the auditory realm, the starkly memorable sounds of tragedy which tonight’s presentation showcases: the great whirring hum of the ship’s three propellers v. the plaintive strain of an Irish air; the operatic cacophony of people fighting for a seat on a boat v. the surreal lilt of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”; the wrenching and tearing of boilers and engines as the liner broke apart v. Jack Thayer’s description of the buzzing rattle made by hundreds of people freezing to death in the twenty-eight-degree water: “it sounded like locusts on a midsummer night” back home in Pennsylvania.

In the end, the Titanic disaster can be told any way we like. The ship’s plunge to the sea bottom resurfaces as myth, which we fashion any number of heroic ways, but especially one—to believe that we would have done what the musicians did.