Origins: The final moments of the Titanic produced many stirring tales of bravery and heroism: officers who stayed on deck to load and launch lifeboats until all the boats were safely away, engine room crew who worked away well below decks to keep power and lights running as long as possible, wireless operators who remained at their posts even after the captain released them from duty, and passengers who stood aside so that others might have their seats in the too-few lifeboats. All these people gallantly risked their lives so that others might have a better chance of survival; not because they had to, but because they felt it was their duty.
One of most compelling of these tales of self-sacrifice is that of the Titanic's band. They weren't part of the ship's crew (although they nominally signed ship's orders, they were carried as passengers), and they weren't needed to keep the power running or to load the lifeboats; likely no one would have protested if they had sought places in lifeboats. Instead, of their own volition, they stayed with the ship until the very end, steadfastly playing light, airy music to help keep passengers calm while the available lifeboats were loaded.
Many different tunes have been put forth as the final song, but for now we'll focus on the only two that have any real weight of evidence behind them: "Nearer, My God, to Thee" and "Autumn." The primary (and only) evidence for latter comes from an interview given to The New York Times by Harold Bride, the Titanic's junior wireless operator, immediately upon his arrival in New York aboard the rescue ship Carpathia:
Our captain had left us at this time, and Phillips told me to run and tell him what the Carpathia had answered. I did so, and I went through an awful mass of people to his cabin. The decks were full of scrambling men and women.
I went to my cabin and dressed.
Every few minutes Phillips would send me to the Captain with little
I went out on deck and looked around. The water was pretty close up to the boat deck.
I thought it was time to look about and see if there was anything detached that would float. I remembered [my lifebelt] under my bunk. I went and got it.
I saw a collapsible boat near a funnel and went over to it.
I looked out. The boat deck was awash.
From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a rag-time tune, I don't know what. Then there was "Autumn." Phillips ran aft, and that was the last I ever saw of him alive.
I went to the place I had seen the collapsible boat on the boat deck, and to my surprise I saw the boat and the men still trying to push it off. I guess there wasn't a sailor in the crowd. They couldn't do it. I went up to them and was just lending a hand when a large wave came awash of the deck.
The big wave carried the boat off. I had hold of an oarlock, and I went off with it.
Smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel. There must have been an explosion, but we had heard none. We only saw the big stream of sparks. The ship was gradually turning on her nose — just like a duck does that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind — to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down.
They were playing "Autumn" then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was
The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while still we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebeltt on, it was still on deck playing "Autumn." How they ever did it I cannot imagine.
- He was not an excited, wild-eyed passenger, but a professional whose job required intense concentration and attention to detail and who remained at his post (at the risk of his life) even after being released from duty by the captain.
- He undeniably remained on board the Titanic until the very end, leaving only when a wave washed him off the deck.
- He was isolated during the trip to New York aboard the rescue ship, spending the first ten hours in the hospital and the rest of the voyage in the wireless room assisting the Carpathia's telegraph operator, and thus had little chance to be influenced by stories and rumors related by other passengers.
- He told his story immediately upon his arrival in New York, while the memories were still fresh in his mind.
- He was the only person aboard the Titanic who reported hearing the band play "Autumn" as their last song.
- His New York Times interview was the only time he spoke of the matter (that we know of).
- "Autumn" is ambiguous and could refer to either the Episcopalian hymn or the popular waltz (also known as "Songe d'Automne").
- Neither the hymn nor the waltz "Autumn" was included in the White Star book of music that all the musicians were expected to know by heart, and the last moments on board a sinking ship would be an unusual time to improvise (although some writers have reported that a few passengers claimed to recall hearing the band play "Autumn," the waltz, earlier in the voyage.)
- Some survivors who remained aboard the Titanic until the very end stated that they did not hear the band play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" at any time.
- The hymn we refer to as "Nearer, My God, to Thee" is a set of lyrics, not the integrated unit of melody and lyrics we typically think of as a "song." The hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee" was played to several different melodies, each of which had its own name. Most British would recognize the hymn by the melody known as "Horbury," while the setting familiar to most Americans would be the melody called "Bethany." Nonetheless, both British and American survivors reported hearing the band play "Nearer, My God, to Thee." Although certainly some of them would have recognized both melodies, once again we have to conclude (outside of the unlikely event that the band played multiple versions) that many passengers reported what others told them rather than what they actually heard.
Whatever the truth of the Titanic's "last song" legend, Eaton and Haas neatly sum up its significance:
Last updated: 18 December 2005
Beesley, Lawrence. The Loss of the S.S. Titanic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912. ISBN 0-618-05531-2. Bride, Harold. "Thrilling Tale By Titanic's Surviving Wireless Man." The New York Times. 28 April 1912. Eaton, John P. and Charles A. Haas. Titanic: Destination Disaster. Wellingborough, England: Patrick Stephens, 1987. ISBN 0-85059-868-0. Gracie, Archibald. The Truth About the Titanic. New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1913. Heyer, Paul. Titanic Legacy: Disaster As Media Event and Myth. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995. ISBN 0-275-95352-1. Lord, Walter. A Night to Remember. New York: Bantam Books, 1955. ISBN 0-553-27827-4. Lord, Walter The Night Lives On. New York: Avon Books, 1986. ISBN 0-380-73203-3. Wade, Wyn Craig. The Titanic: End of a Dream. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. ISBN 0-14-016691-2.