FOR SALE: ONE VIOLIN, SLIGHTLY USED….

Memorial to the Titanic engineers. Southampton

Memorial to the Titanic engineers. Southampton

I mean, how else would you preface the sale of what is undoubtedly the single most potent musical instrument on the planet?

The violin played by Titanic band leader Wallace Hartley is finally going under the auctioneer’s hammer this coming Saturday, October 19th. The reserve price is estimated at a colossal £400,000, but the actual sale price is likely to be much, much higher at the end of bidding.

Shortly before midnight on April 14th, 1912, the hull of the Titanic glanced against a half submerged iceberg for around thirty seconds or so. The steel plates crumpled like so much wet cardboard. Within ten minutes, there was more than fourteen feet of water in the fore part of the ship. It couldn’t be stopped.

With boats for less than half of the 2200 passengers and crew and time running out, the evacuation of the ship took a two track journey. On the one hand, officers were desperate to fill and lower such boats as there were. But on the other hand, they were consumed by the overwhelming desire to prevent a panic that would have jeopardised every soul on board.

That’s where Hartley, the rest of his four man band, and the separate trio that played in other parts of the ship came into the plot. Woken by the chief purser, they were asked to play to keep the passengers calm. No one specified what, where or for how long they were supposed to play.

In a way, the sinking of the Titanic has eerie parallels with the destruction of Pompeii. Luxury, good living and debauchery giving way to a rising tide of disbelief as death stole by degrees toward a crowd  clad largely in denial. The music of the Titanic bandsmen was intended to act as a kind of anaesthetic. And Hartley knew it would.

Years before, the young musician had an interesting conversation with a friend, in which he said that, in the event of a disaster at sea, he believed that music could be a far more effective way to keep people calm than even a revolver. On that cold April night in 1912, Wallace Hartley and his impromptu mini orchestra got to put that doomsday scenario into effect

...sawing gamely away at ragtime on deck......

…sawing gamely away at ragtime on deck……

Starting at the foot of the Grand Staircase and then eventually moving up to the vestibule, Hartley and his seven musicians sawed gamely away at a light, lilting mega mix of contemporary pop hits that they all knew by heart; they played light operetta, waltzes and, above all, jaunty ragtime numbers. Without music stands, and without the benefit of having all played together before, the eight men had to keep it simple and, more to the point, numbingly cheerful. It was, in effect, an impromptu jamming session; perhaps the most fearlessly impressive in the history of humankind to this day.

Later, they followed the increasingly worried human throng outside. There, on the sloping boat deck, they took their final stand. Against a backdrop of soaring white rockets and slowly lowering, half empty lifeboats, Hartley and his men played until the very end. Not one of them survived. Of the eight, only three bodies were recovered.

One of those found was that of Wallace Hartley. Minutes before the end, he put the violin into a leather luggage case and strapped it to his body. His mother said that she was sure that he would be found clasping his violin. She was right.

This, then, is the instrument that will go on sale this Saturday at the Devizes, Wiltshire auction house of Henry Aldridge and Son. With the violin is the luggage case it was found in, and seven sheets of American ragtime music that Hartley had obviously been studying.

The totemic value of the actual violin is incalculable; it is right up there with that of the Walther pistol that Adolf Hitler committed suicide with, or the sword used to execute Anne Boleyn. As such, it has a value that no amount of money could ever actually quantify. And yet, come Saturday, someone will become the new owner of this, the most famous musical instrument of all time.

The end in sight, and the music is still playing.....

The end in sight, and the music is still playing…..

There will always be those who find this kind of sale as distasteful as it is inevitable. But it can only be hoped that whoever does come into the possession of this priceless artefact, chooses to treat it with the care, dignity and compassion displayed by its original owner and his seven, outstandingly brave compatriots on that cold, star studded April night back in 1912.

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