Or was it? Walter Lord, author of A Night To Remember and perhaps the finest Titanic historian devoted an entire chapter to this question in his sequal, The Night Lives On. The story is, as most stories from that night are, confused and contradictory.
The Hymn Nearer My God To Thee was written by Sarah Flower Adams in 1841, and put to music by her sister Eliza. But the music was not what you just heard, because the popular hymn was soon re-scored. The tune in the scene above is properly called "Bethany", composed by Lowell Mason, and was the popular version of the hymn in the United States. But Hartley was English, and the White Star Line was owned and operated by Englishmen. In the UK, the tune most commonly played for the hymn was "Horbury" by John Bacchus Dykes:
But that's not the end of the matter. Hartley was a Methodist, and the Methodist hymnal used a score by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Perhaps this version was Titanic's ultimate song:
We have conflicting eye-witness accounts from survivors. Col. Archibald Gracie was blunt when asked whether this was indeed the song [quoted from The Night Lives On]:
If 'Nearer My God To Thee' was one of the selections, I assuredly would have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death, and more likely to create a panic ...Others said that the music was light and cheerful, tunes that the band had been playing all voyage. One in particular was called out, "Autumn", referring to the 1911 London hit Songe d'Automne:
A few have said that the reference was to the Church of England hymn Autumn, but according to Lord that seems unlikely as it was rarely used and removed from the hymnal a few years later. In any event, the legend lives on to this day. The disaster called forth perhaps the best from society, and Caruso himself performed at a benefit concert only a couple of weeks after the sinking.
Perhaps most astonishing of all, Bandleader Hartley's body was one of the few recovered, and was brought back to England for burial. Lord describes the scene:
Seven bands played as his rosewood casket, borne shoulder-high, was carried through the winding streets of Colne, Hartley's birthplace in the winding hills of Lancashire. Aldermen, councilors, ambulance men, police, boys' brigades, and musicians from all over England fell in behind - the procession was a half-mile long. Thousands lined the route, most wore black or white, but occasionally there were mill girls in their drab shawls and miners in their blue overalls. All business had stopped for the day.They were closer to the tragedy than we, looking back through the glass darkened by a century's passing. They felt the grief of loss sharply, the sudden and entirely unexpected loss of friends and family. That's worth a moment of our thought this morning, for the lost souls - men, women, and children - of the unsinkable Titanic. And so the circle is completed, with an achingly beautiful a capella version of the first version of the hymn that we heard here. Whether this was the last song that they heard or not, these words seem fitting.
- Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
- Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
- Yet in my dreams I'd be nearer, my God, to Thee
That's gentler than the 1892 Book Of Common Prayer which would have been familiar to most of the doomed souls:
O MOST glorious and gracious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below; Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is now ready to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shall praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds and the roaring sea; that we, being delivered from this distress, may live to serve thee, and to glorify thy Name all the days of our life. Hear, Lord, and save us, for the infinite merits of our blessed Saviour, thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.Amen.