Steve Turner,
The Band That Played On
(Thomas Nelson, 2011)

Surely, the tale must be apocryphal. An uplifting coda to a great tragedy that caught the public's attention and became "fact" through sheer force of will and the need of many to find some sign of hope in an event of overwhelming loss.

But no. According to Steve Turner, in his new book The Band That Played On, the eight musicians on the Titanic really did keep playing right up to the end, even as the water swirled around their legs and, according to some accounts, they went down on their knees to maintain balance on the listing deck.

One survivor, a crewman who was among the last off the ship, tells an even more remarkable story: As the ship went under, he saw seven musicians swept overboard, and the music ceased -- until the last member of the band, a violinist, struggled upright on the deck and began playing again, solo, until the Titanic went down for the final time.

It breaks the heart. It moves the spirit to read of such bravery, perhaps even heroism, in the face of certain death.

Accounts differ over whether or not the Titanic's band -- actually two bands, a trio and a quintet, who joined together after the iceberg struck -- were told to play or did so on their own initiative. Certainly no one could have blamed them, orders or not, if at some point they'd abandoned their posts and made some effort to save themselves in the last remaining lifeboats.

But they didn't. And, according to eyewitness accounts, all eight musicians made that heroic sacrifice, playing music that could be heard over the still ocean by survivors in lifeboats more than a mile away.

Turner's research here is exhaustive, and his presentation is calmly factual, though never dull. In turn, he explores the backgrounds of the eight men and the paths that led them to Titanic. He pieces together the events on April 15, 1912, that brought them to the deck and inspired them to give that final performance. And he follows through in the aftermath, as their names are celebrated around the world as heroes -- and as some businessmen and bereaved families squabble over insurance payouts, and one family is even billed for the cost of altering a musician's uniform before he sailed. He details the lives of their families and fiancees in the years that followed. Sometimes, he follows extraneous leads to provide information seemingly unrelated to the musicians themselves, but it distracts little from the overall text.

He looks at the music they would have played, based on survivors' memories and the Titanic playbook, and concludes that, while much of the time was probably spent on cheerful ragtime and show tunes, designed to buoy the spirits of the stricken passengers and crew, it was quite likely that they turned to hymns at the end, going down to the tune of "Nearer, My God, to Thee."

"They kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had power to drown them into silence. The band was playing 'Nearer, My God, to Thee.' I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close."
- Charlotte Collyer, survivor

Turner writes with a certain awe at their sacrifice, a sense of wonder that is imparted to the reader on every page.

This is an amazing book. The story of the Titanic never fails to move me -- in ways the 1997 film never could -- and these musicians are the noble, immutable heart of the tragedy. Turner's work here should be commended, and his book should be read.

And their names should not be forgotten: violinists Wallace Hartley (bandleader), John Law Hume and Georges Alexandre Krins; John Frederick Preston Clark on viola; cellists John Wesley Woodward and Roger Bricoux; and pianists William Theodore Brailey and Percy Cornelius Taylor.


I have one quibble with an assumption Turner makes in chapter 12 and revisits in chapter 16: When Wallace Hartley's body was recovered -- one of three musicians whose body was found nearly two weeks after the disaster -- his violin case was apparently strapped to his body. But when he and his personal effects were delivered to his family, the case was missing. Turner presumes the violin that played the Titanic to her grave was inside -- but I find it highly unlikely, if he truly played until the end, that he took the time once in the water to put the violin neatly back in its case. In a closing chapter, Turner reveals that Hartley's violin may have resurfaced, conveniently inscribed and with accompanying documents "proving" it was Hartley's aboard the Titanic, but there's nothing there that couldn't have been forged or faked. Turner himself explains how even a touch of frigid seawater would have reduced a violin to its component parts, and yet he asks us to believe that Hartley went into the water, drowned or died of exposure, and floated there for two weeks in rough and foggy weather without the violin getting wet. The fact that the instrument's "rediscovery" is timed just before the grand old ship's centennial -- and that the instrument in question is headed for the auction block, where it's expected to attract a tidy sum -- makes me wonder at Turner's credulity.


"The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. ... How they ever did it I cannot imagine."
- Harold Bride, Titanic radio operator and survivor

book review by
Tom Knapp

9 April 2011

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