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Remembering The Titanic's Intrepid Bandleader

This weekend marks the centennial of the Titanic disaster. One hundred years ago Saturday, the ship that, as legend had it, "God himself couldn't sink," struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. It was about 20 minutes to midnight on April 14, 1912. Two hours and 40 minutes later, the Titanic was gone.

More than 1,500 people died that night. One of them was Wallace Hartley, the son of a church choirmaster in England; he'd left work as a bank teller for a career in music. Hartley conducted and played violin, and he worked some 80 maritime voyages before joining the Titanic as bandmaster.

In the book Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner, historian John Maxtone-Graham describes the 33-year-old Hartley as so dapper and hip to new music that he used the name "Hotley" in his wireless messages.

"Whenever he went to New York, he didn't go to the oyster houses or taverns that his fellow crewmen went to," Maxtone-Graham says. "He went to Tin Pan Alley looking for sheet music because he was hipped on getting the latest possible music to play for his passengers."

Hartley and his musicians became the stuff of legend as the Titanic was sinking, because they kept playing.

Like many of the details from that night, accounts of that episode vary. As Maxtone-Graham tells it, they played inside at first, then moved outdoors, "where there was no piano, no light, no chairs, no music stands, and played on that cold outer deck."

Their final song has been much debated. The hymn "Nearer, My God, To Thee" was long a favorite. The most famous Titanic chronicler, Walter Lord, originally thought it was another hymn, "Autumn." Maxtone-Graham says Lord later came to believe it was actually a waltz with a similar name.

"Thanks to Walter Lord, I think the real last tune they played was a little bittersweet waltz by Archibald Joyce," Maxtone-Graham says. "He gave it a French name, as many Edwardian creative people did. They thought if they made it French it would be a little more elegant, so he called it 'Songe d'Automne' — thoughts, or dreams, of autumn."

Whatever that final song, Maxton-Graham has come to think of Wallace Hartley, in those final hours on the Titanic, as a minister tending his flock.

"His flock were those musicians," he says. "He was taking care of their spiritual needs near the end of their lives by giving them a job they could do that would fill the time. My conviction is it gave as much comfort to the men who were playing as to the people who heard them."

All eight musicians on the Titanic, Hartley included, died on that April night 100 years ago.

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