Sometime around 2:10 a.m. as the Titanic began settling more quickly into the icy North Altantic, the sounds of ragtime, familiar dance tunes and popular waltzes that had floated reassuringly across her decks suddenly stopped as Bandmaster Wallace Hartley tapped his bow against his violin. Hartley and his musicians, all wearing their lifebelts now, were standing back at the base of the second funnel, on the roof of the First Class Lounge, where they had been playing for the better part of an hour. There were a few moments of silence, then the solemn strains of the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” began drifting across the water. It was with a perhaps unintended irony that Hartley chose a hymn that pleaded for the mercy of the Almighty, as the ultimate material conceit of the Edwardian Age, the ship that “God Himself couldn’t sink,” foundered beneath his feet. As the band played, the slant of the deck grew steeper, while from within the hull came a rapidly increasing number of thuds, bangs and crashes as interior furnishings broke loose, walls and partitions collapsed–the Titanic was only moments from breaking apart.
For years it has been commonly believed that the last music played by the Titanic‘s band was either the Episcopalian hymn “Autumn” or the popular waltz “Songe d’Automne.” However, the evidence for this has rested solely on the uncorroborated testimony of Harold Bride, who told a reporter for the New York Times that the last song he remembered the band playing was called “Autumn.” Bride, though, was the only person with that recollection, he only mentioned it once, and he never specified if he meant the hymn or the waltz. Moreover, despite the credence given him by some later historians, Bride was never the most reliable or consistent witness, and here his “memories” have to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. Tellingly, neither piece of “Autumn” music, the hymn or the popular waltz, is listed in the White Star Line’s music book for 1912. Also significant is that the hymn is not called “Autumn,” only the melody (much like the melody of the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is known as “St. Anne’s”), and usually only a professional musician will refer to a piece of music that way–certainly not an 18-year old wireless operator. So without some sort of supporting or collaborating evidence, any piece of music named “Autumn” can be dismissed as the Titanic‘s orchestra’s last musical performance.
A very strong case can be made, however, for the hymn tradition and legend has always said was the last music played aboard the Titanic. There are a number of accounts of survivors who recalled hearing the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and therein lies a tale. Commentators who have rigidly committed to the “‘Autumn theory’” are quick to point out that there are two melodies associated with “Nearer My God to Thee;” one (“Bethany”) is American, the other (“Horbury”) is British, the two sound distinctly different from each other and are impossible to confuse–yet both American and British survivors claimed to have heard “Nearer My God to Thee” being played by the ship’s orchestra. What those same commentators fail to mention is that there is a THIRD melody for “Nearer My God to Thee,” called “Propior Deo,” composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and it is here that the mystery of the last music played by Wallace Hartley and his fellow musicians finally begins to unravel itself. The melody “Propior Deo” would have been well known to the British passengers aboard the Titanic, and in passages it sounds very similar to “Bethany”–and nothing at all like “Horbury.” In the noise and confusion of the night, it would hardly be surprising if both Americans and Britons, hearing only snatches of music, would both believe that they were hearing the version of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” with which they were most familiar.
Moreover, “Nearer My God to Thee” was known to be a favorite of Bandmaster Hartley’s–who was also a friend of Sir Arthur Sullivan and who liked Sullivan’s music–and it was the hymn played at the graveside of all deceased members of the Musician’s Union. Perhaps most convincing of all is a report in the Daily Sketch on April 22, 1912, where a colleague of Hartley’s recalled how some years earlier, while working aboard the Mauretania, he asked Hartley what he would do if he found himself on the deck of a sinking ship. Hartley replied that he would assemble the ship’s orchestra and play “O God Our Help in Ages Past” or “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Somehow, taken all together, it seems definitive enough.
Listen to an organ arrangement of “Nearer My God to Thee”–the Propior Deo melody: Nearer My God ToThee-Propior Deo