Thursday and Friday in our series From the Library we bring you a selection of music that would likely have been familiar to the well-to-do ladies and gentlemen of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, with a programme ranging from Viennese waltzes to popular songs of the last years of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th: some from the original recordings; most from modern recordings that recreate the atmosphere of the times. From visits to the Ball, the dance-hall, the theatre or the music hall, to soirées at home around the piano, these were indeed the nights of memories. Some songs are quite poignant, like Give Me A Ticket To Heaven, which juxtaposes steam technology with sentimentality in a uniquely Victorian way.
But the phrase “A Night to Remember” recalls something else too. On April 14, 1912, just over 97 years ago to the day, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank the next day with the loss of over 1,500 lives, making it the worst peacetime seafaring disaster in history. There has been a great deal of discussion — and even controversy — about the last piece of music that the eight-member band played on that fateful night, when the musicians helped keep up the spirits of passengers and crew, continuing to play even after it became evident that the ship was going to sink with terrible loss of life, likely including their own.
The band leader, Wallace Hartley, an experienced on-board musician, had told friends that if he was ever playing on a ship that was going down, he would play the hymn Nearer My God To Thee. However, other reports suggest that it might have been the popular song Songe d’Automne – a suggestion that appears in Walter Lord’s book A Night To Remember (on which the excellent 1958 movie of the same name was based) as being the account of wireless operator Harold Bride.
The subject is complicated by the fact that none of the band members survived, and with accounts of survivors of the disaster there are challenges concerning what hymn tunes would have been known to British and US crew-members and passengers, and how they would have referred to them.
Thanks to a tip from my colleague Diamanda Gustafson, we are able to give you a flavour of the music that was played on the voyage – and perhaps in those last minutes when band played on heroically to the end. Included in today’s programme are tracks from the album by Mary Jane Newman and the Southampton Pier Players, Music from the Titanic: 21 Authentic Songs from the Epic Journey. Newman keeps her options open, including both Song of Autumn and Nearer My God To Thee (to the tune Bethany), not to mention Heavenly Father, Strong to Save (“For those in peril on the sea”) for good measure, along with many of the other tunes that are believed to have been played by Wallace Hartley and the band during the course of the voyage.
It has been said that the sinking of the Titanic represented the end of an era. Perhaps so, but even more so it was the Great War that would do that a scant two years later. The Britain that emerged from World War I in 1918 was bereft of a great many of its young men, particularly those who powered the infrastructure of Victorian and Edwardian society — the servant and working classes. The country would never be the same again: a whole world had passed away, never to return.
From the Library is produced by Radio Riel in conjunction with the Caledon Library in Second Life. Today’s programme was produced by Elrik Merlin.
For more information on the Caledon Library, current exhibits and the work of Second Life reference libraries in general, please visit the Caledon Library Web site, or one of their locations in-world.
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