The discovery of Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley’s actual violin is almost as miraculous as if the ship herself had been somehow dragged up for air. But years of painstaking research seem to have established beyond doubt that it is, indeed, the real thing. The musical holy grail, no less. Without doubt, the single most potent musical instrument anywhere on the planet. Hendrix’ guitar or Irving Berlin’s piano? Not even close.
It is also easily the single most iconic artifact to surface in the wake of the disaster, and it’s subsequent century long voyage to immortality. As a talisman, it is right up there with the sword used to execute Anne Boleyn, or the Walther pistol that Hitler shot himself with in the bunker. A direct link with an event that seared itself into humanity’s soul forever.
The irony is that neither Hartley nor his violin should have been aboard the Titanic at all.
Wallace Hartley had been a regular bandleader on the Cunard sisters, Lusitania and Mauretania. But he was due to retire from the sea to get married at the age of thirty-three. He was apparently personally persuaded to sign on to the Titanic by the musical director of the White Star Line. His contract was for the first round trip only; sixteen days, to and from New York. In a letter home, Wallace wrote; ‘this is a fine ship, and the boys in the band seem really nice.’
Like most seagoing musicians of that time, Hartley would almost certainly have been upset and angry about the terms and conditions that professional musicians such as himself now had to work under. Financially speaking, the ground had been cut from under their feet by greedy, unscrupulous employers. The wages he earned at sea would not have been enough to support his probably hoped for future family.
At the turn of 1912, musicians worked directly for the shipping lines themselves, and were classed as actual members of the ships’ crew.
Then, along came a Liverpool based firm of contractors called C.W. and F. N. Black. They persuaded companies such as Cunard and White Star to let all their musicians go. In effect, fire them. In future, they would hire only musicians signed up with the aptly named Blacks.
The musicians- effectively screwed over by their former employers- were left with no alternative but to sign on with the Blacks. Those enterprising souls then re-hired the same musicians back to their former employers.
At half their former wages, naturally.
But there was more. The musicians were now officially classified as second class passengers, under the nominal authority of the captain. To add to the indignity, they each had to produce proof on each arrival in New York of at least fifty dollars in funds, to show that they were not, in fact, destitute, would be scroungers.
All of this needs to be borne in mind when you remember what Hartley and his seven shipmates- five Englishmen, a Frenchman and a Belgian- did on board the Titanic as she sank in the early morning hours of April 15th, 1912.
They were certainly a talented bunch. George Krins, the Belgian violinist, was poached from the London Ritz, especially for the Titanic. Thirty-two year old cellist Percy Taylor was a native Londoner. At least two of the musicians came from the Cunard liner, Carpathia. In an appalling piece of irony, it would be the Carpathia that rescued the Titanic survivors. The youngest of the bunch was the twenty year old French cellist, Roger Bricoux.
What they did remains unrivalled as an act of musical heroism. Woken by the chief purser, Hugh McElroy, they were asked to play for the rudely awakened passengers. No-one specified how long they were expected to play for. McElroy, party to the awful truth about the real nature of the ship’s injuries, would have been all over the place that night, trying to get things moving. He did not survive, either.
Nor do we know if McElroy told Hartley everything that he knew. That said, there is little doubt that all the bandsmen knew well from the start that the Titanic was seriously, perhaps fatally, wounded.
As second class passengers, there was no obligation for Hartley or the rest of the men to do anything other than save themselves. After all, they were classed as passengers, and not employees of the White Star line. Of course, we now know that they did not exercise that particular get out clause in their contract. Unlike, for instance, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, who left his sinking ship- and his doomed passengers and crew- in one of the last lifeboats.
Instead, for the first and last time, the two sets of musicians would play as a unified, eight man combo.The regular band- with Hartley as it’s leader- was a five piece outfit, common to all the White Star liners at that time.
But the Titanic also featured an additional trio that played in various venues around the ship. Though the eight musicians all roomed together and had another, shared room for their instruments they were, in effect, entirely different outfits.
This largely explains their choice of music over the next two hours, as the Titanic sagged into the Atlantic under their very feet. Without music stands, and with slowly fading light, they had to play stuff that all of them knew by heart. Operetta, light waltzes and, predominantly, happy, upbeat ragtime.
They took their doomed, final stand in the first class lounge, and launched into ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ at 12.45 that night; about the same time as the first lifeboat tottered down the floodlit flank of the Titanic. It was less than half full. Up above, the first white distress rockets spluttered uselessly in a brilliantly clear, starlit sky.
Some of the bandsmen were dressed in their green uniforms. Others had just slipped top coats over their pyjamas in their initial haste. Some wore life jackets from the start; others only donned theirs much later. But while their appearance was understandably haphazard, there was nothing wrong with the quality of their music that incredible night.
The impromptu band later moved to the vestibule lobby at the top of the Grand Staircase and, later still, out on to the sloping boat deck itself. What happened at this juncture to Theodore ‘Ted’ Brailey, the twenty- four year old piano player, is hard to say for certain.
The other seven musicians were all bassists, cellists and violinists. The Titanic had five pianos in all. One of these was in the vestibule lobby, but there were none out on deck. Yet shipboard musicians are a famously tight knit bunch; they work, live and often socialise together at all hours. My money would be very much on Ted remaining with his friends to give moral support, just as much as for the undoubted comfort he got from being with them.
Of course, they perished to a man. Only three of the bodies were recovered, including Hartley’s. His mother said that she felt sure that he would be found clasping his violin. It now seems that he did, indeed, pack it away and strap it to himself only minutes before the Titanic’s final plunge.
The memory of what those matchless, marvellous men did was in stark contrast to the actions of their former employers. Neither the Blacks nor the White Star Line had taken out insurance on the eight musicians. Each blamed the other, pushed responsibility for the claims back and forth, and refused to pay compensation to the bereaved families. But even worse was to come.
The body of young Jock Hume, the twenty-one year old Scottish violinist, was one of those retrieved from the wreck site. He was buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the time his fiance, Mary Costin, was pregnant with Jock’s first child. They had been due to marry on his return from the maiden voyage.
Two weeks after the disaster, Jock’s father, Alexander, received a letter from C.W. & F.N. Black. It said simply;
We shall be obliged if you will remit us the sum of 5s. 4d which is owing to us as per enclosed statement.
We shall also be obliged if you would settle the enclosed uniform account.
C.W. & F.N. Black’
The Blacks wanted, among other things, recompense for the buttons on Jock’s bandsman’s uniform. Each one cost them good money, apparently. Jock had managed to throw a coat and muffler over the top of it before he began playing out on deck at some stage that night. He was still wearing both when his body was fished out of the freezing Atlantic.
The employers of the Titanic musicians may well have wanted to forget all about them. But the survivors did not. A year after the disaster, the Countess of Rothes- one of the more famous survivors- was dining out in New York, when she suddenly became overwhelmed by the sense of fear and horror that she always associated with the Titanic.
It was only later that she realised that the hotel orchestra had been playing excerpts from The Tales of Hoffman; the self same tune that Hartley and his bandsmen had been playing on the Titanic just after dinner that fateful night.
So the discovery of Hartley’s violin will act as a lightning rod for anyone with even the most tenuous emotional link to the Titanic, and the story of her brave musicians. It will start an unseemly bidding frenzy among collectors that will, no doubt, echo the style, taste and complete disregard of ethics shown by the Blacks, and, indeed, by the White Star Line as well.
Hopefully, it will also hold up a plain mirror to the unspeakable Clive Palmer, and his ghastly fantasy of turning the Titanic and her tragedy into a bizarre travelling circus; one where passengers can be photographed posing as ‘Jack’ and ‘Rose’ even as they sail over the all too real grave site of the sunken ship.
Is it too much to assume that Wallace Hartley and his comrades, so shabbily treated by both White Star and the Blacks, would be more than slightly disgusted at the money grubbing antics of those who claim ownership of such literally priceless relics as Hartley’s violin?
I can’t say for sure, of course, but I’m guessing they would be appalled to a man. Dead men tell no tales, but a violin- albeit one that has remained mute for over a century- still has a thousand or more stories to tell. The question is, who is really listening here?
UPDATE: MAY 23, 2013:
Hartley’s violin has now been subjected to a thorough CT scan to analyse the interior make up, in a final attempt to clarify it’s provenance. The scan revealed traces of salt water immersion, and also determined that the instrument is held together with animal glue. This tends to melt in hot temperatures, not cold ones. It would explain why it did not fall apart on contact with the water.
The scan, carried out at the BMI Ridgeway hospital, in Wiltshire, ends any residual doubt as to the validity of Hartley’s violin. The instrument will go on display in America this month, before being put up for auction later this year.
UPDATE: OCTOBER 10, 2013:
After being on display to the public in Belfast over the summer, Wallace Hartley’s violin will be auctioned on Saturday, October 19th at the Aldridge auction house in Devizes, Wiltshire.
With it are seven sheets of music for American ragtime tunes recovered in the valise.
The violin alone is conservatively estimated to fetch at least £400,000.
UPDATE: OCTOBER 19, 2013;
Wallace Hartley’s violin was today sold for £900,000. The buyer’s name has not been disclosed.