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Titanic Sank With a Waltz, Not a Hymn

Ian Whitcomb is the producer of "Titanic--Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage" (Rhino), which last week was nominated for Grammys in two categories (liner notes and packaging)

Let’s clear up the controversy about the Titanic’s band and “Nearer My God to Thee” for all time (“Readers Come to ‘Titanic’ Critic’s Rescue,” Calendar, Jan. 3).

They never played the hymn.

As a music consultant for James Cameron’s “Titanic,” I provided a British copy of the hymn--with the warning that this doleful piece was never played during the sinking. Common sense alone tells us that, but melodrama dictates differently.

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Cameron simply purloined the “Nearer My God to Thee” scene from the 1958 British picture, “A Night to Remember,” which in turn was copying earlier movie fiction. The myth had been started in 1912--the year the Titanic sank--by New York tabloids.

I know this because I researched, produced and conducted the CD, “Titanic--Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage” (Rhino), a fully documented and accurate rendition of what was really played aboard the ship.

Here is my proof: Wallace Hartley, the bandleader, was asked by a reporter --months before he sailed on the Titanic --what he would play in the event of a disaster at sea. He said he’d play “cheerful stuff” such as ragtime. Nothing to cause a panic. “I’d never play ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ ” he said, for he’d reserve that for his own funeral.

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As a functionary providing mood music, he knew it was his job to prevent panic, not create it. So he ordered a diet of ragtime on that last night. Survivors have detailed the names of the rag songs--"Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” etc.

Harold Bride, the radio operator, one of the last to leave the ship, told the New York Times (after the tabloids had spread the hymn myth) that the last tune performed was “Songe d’Automne,” a then-current pop hit by British dance bandleader Archibald Joyce.

It’s a beautiful waltz and makes a much more fitting swan song than the wretched hymn. Truth is always richer than fiction.

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Ian Whitcomb is the producer of “Titanic--Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage” (Rhino), which last week was nominated for Grammys in two categories (liner notes and packaging).


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