Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sarah Flower Adams - Nearer My God To Thee

A century ago to this day, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic struck an iceberg and foundered, taking 1,514 souls to a watery grave.  Many stories of heroism and sacrifice from that cold, desperate night have come down to us; perhaps none so moving as that of the band gathering on the boat deck to play music that might soothe the panic and grief of the passengers.  Bandmaster Wallace Hartley and the entire band perished, but did not desert their post.  The story started circulating almost immediately in 1912, and has given Hollywood some of its most powerful scenes of them playing the Titanic's last song.

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.  


wolfwalker said...

There are many mysteries about the night Titanic sank, and the question of what the band played is neither the least nor the greatest. Walter Lord's argument in The Night Lives On seems definitive, especially where he quotes the assistant radio operator.

Myself, I can't think of Bandmaster Hartley and his men without remembering the rest of their story, as told by Lord. Anyone who really thinks that employees are treated badly by their employers today should read the story of how the White Star Line treated its musicians.

Divemedic said...

Not only that, but even body recovery was done by class. The only bodies recovered and returned to port were those of first class passengers. The rest were left in the sea.

The Czar of Muscovy said...

The human body, as we know, is subject to all manner of stresses during a crisis, and different people can give completely contradictory information without any of them lying about it.

When you think about, it's doubtful that anyone--in the chaos and panic of evacuation, especially in those final moments--sat up, took note of the band and said "I must remember what tune they're playing."

Further, I might suppose in the hours it took for Titanic to sink, they played the same damn song over and over. More likely, in their resignation, they played a suite of their favorites. This would easily account for the various opinions as to what was played: you only remembered what you heard as you were lowered in your own particular lifeboat.

Given the ship's immense size, it is also doubtful that the band could be heard outside of its immediate section. Therefore, very few people would have heard them at all, and nearly all of them not inclined to jot down the playlist.

Rev. Paul said...