Wild Air

RMS Titanic

I have scheduled this post to appear on the Reynolds Organ Blog, “Wild Air,” at exactly 1:17 am on April 15, 2012.   Correcting for shipboard time vs. Eastern Daylight Time, this is posting on the 100th anniversary of the exact moment that the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean closed over the stern of the ill-fated Titanic.   What in the world could this historic event have to do with music or  the pipe organ?        

I admit to being something of a Titanic “buff.”   So, I guess I have thought about it more this week, as we approach this milestone.   The Titanic disaster brought an abrupt end to the Edwardian age, a time of wealth, priviledge, and naïveté .  
Most of us have heard the story of the ship’s orchestra, the  eight courageous musicians who bravely played on as the bow of the ship sank lower and lower.   In the weeks following the sinking, the orchestra members were the subject of countless sermons, all made from the safety of land-based pulpits.   When band leader Wallace Hartley’s body was recovered two weeks afterward, he was taken home to England, where he was buried in his home village of Colne in a scene of “unbelievable pageantry.”
There are interesting and conflicting stories concerning what the orchestra played at the very end.   Common belief, as confirmed by Hollywood, is that the last piece to echo over the waters from the dying liner was, Nearer, My God, to Thee.   However, much of the crew and many of the passengers were English or Irish, while others were American.   In the Anglican tradition of the time, the words of this hymn were sung to the hymntune Propior Deo, while Americans sang the hymn to the tune Bethany.   To add to the confusion, the waltz Songe d’Autumne, by Archibald Joyce, written in 1908, was also popular at the time.   Different witnesses, as witnesses will, heard different songs, so we will never know for sure what music comforted those lost souls.
More important, though, than what was sung, was the fact that, as in almost all great human events, music played a significant role.

The Funeral of Titanic Bandleader Wallace Hartley in 1912 was attended by an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people.

How absurd, then, that we teach our children about this powerful medium in an offhand, almost accidental manner.   Human beings likely had the gift of music before we had the gift of speech.   As a tool of communication and persuasion it it unsurpassed, even by the spoken or written word.     This is why the nineteenth century British essayist, William Pater, asserted that “all art aspires to the condition of music.”   Imagine Martin Luther without A Mighty Fortress.   How significant to freeing the slaves was the Battle Hymn of the Republic?   Imagine any Christmas without Silent Night.   Imagine Hitler without Wagner and the martial music of the Third Reich.  
When I was a boy, a musician once told me that there is no such thing a bad music.   As a man, I heartily disagree.   There certainly is bad music, as well as good music that is used for bad ends.   Music enters the human spirit on at least two levels.   There is an almost irresistible animal instinct to follow rhythm and melody, to the abandonment of critical thought.   There is also music that reaches us through our minds,  allowing us, like Euclid, to look on “beauty bare.”   The greatest music affects us  both ways, and grafts itself inseverably on our souls.
My first experience with the pipe organ was much this way, and, to this day, a half-century later, I can still call up the precise details of the event and the precise feelings it brought about in me.   Perhaps this is why bad music in church,  whether it be bad “classical” music or the rock-pop drivel that is currently in vogue,  fills me with such deep revulsion.  
Music is not an enrichment.   It is not an accessory. It is absolutely fundamental to the human experience.   Misused, it can and will destroy humanity.   But in the hands of courageous souls, like Wallace Hartley, it is  among the most formidable  forces on earth.

2 Responses to “Wallace Hartley and the Power of Music”

  1. Laura Swartzendruber

    I’ve become very curious about the Titanic now that we visit Belfast every year. Our daughter lives less than an hour south of Belfast. We always pass Samson and Goliath, the two huge cranes that were used in building the Titanic and other great ships. I can’t wait to visit the new Titanic Museum this summer! On the BBC News website Sunday they had a little article about a girl whose relative was one of the musicians on the Titanic. She was going to sing at a memorial event.


  2. Thad

    Martin Ellis played the Titanic theme on the anniversary of the sinking in a program at the San Filippo Estate in Chicago. He ended it with “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” He said there wasn’t a dry seat in the house! :-)

    I have a posting of a previous performance posted on YouTube, at http://youtu.be/UTegsLHB4pg.

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