A look back at the 1997 Rhino release Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage
One hundred and seven years ago this month, the RMS Titanic, which set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, bound for New York City, struck an iceberg on April 14 and sank just over two and a half hours later. 1500 people died due to there not being enough lifeboats for everyone on board.
The large loss of life, the famous personalities on board, the claim that the biggest ship in the world was deemed “practically unsinkable,” and the poignant twist of the luxurious ocean liner sinking on its very first trip meant that the Titanic passed into legend the moment her stern sank beneath the waters. As a memorable headline in The Onion put it in a story about the ill-fated liner, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg.”
The event indeed gripped the public imagination. Over the years, scores of books and films have stoked that interest. Walter Lord’s classic account of the disaster, A Night To Remember, has never been out of print since its publication in 1955. James Cameron’s epic 1997 film Titanic, at the time the most expensive film ever made, went on to gross over two billion dollars, winning 11 Oscars along the way (including Best Picture). The film’s theme song, “My Heart Will Go On,” performed by Celine Dion, was also an international success, selling over 18 million copies, winning on Oscar, and three Grammys (including Song of the Year).
There was a related musical tie-in released that same year: Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage (Rhino). It’s a selection of music that was likely to have been played on the ship, performed by contemporary musicians using the same instrumental configuration of the Titanic’s musicians: violin, cello, bass, and piano. The six musicians are billed as “The White Star Orchestra” (the White Star Line being the company that owned the Titanic), a group assembled by Ian Whitcomb, who plays piano, accordion, and ukulele on the album, and who conceived the project. The lovingly designed package features extensive liner notes (written by Whitcomb) with plenty of accompanying illustrations, including sheet music of songs inspired by the disaster (such as “Heroes of the Titanic” and “Just As The Ship Went Down”).
Born in England, Whitcomb’s background includes not only a connection to the Titanic (family lore has it his grandfather had purchased a ticket for the maiden voyage but cancelled at the last minute), but also a brief flirtation with pop success. His 1965 single, “You Turn Me On,” two minutes and forty two seconds of Whitcomb begging his honey to “do the jerk with me,” hit the Top 40 (“I was a sort of Justin Bieber of my time,” Whitcomb jokes). He’s since pursued a variety of musical projects (including producing Mae West’s 1972 album Great Balls of Fire); his website bills him as “America’s Foremost Tin-Pan Alley Man.”
Whitcomb’s involvement with the Titanic project came when he auditioned to play the ship’s band leader, Wallace Hartley, in Cameron’s film. The fate of the band’s musicians is very much a part of the Titanic’s legend. There were eight musicians on board; a quintet (led by Hartley) largely played in the First Class Lounge while a trio played outside the a la carte restaurant and the Café Parisien. After the collision, the musicians took up their instruments and assembled in First Class Lounge, eventually moving out on the Boat Deck. None survived the sinking.
Though not winning the role, Whitcomb was hired as an advisor on the film. Among other things, he pointed out to Cameron the debate over the last number the band played; the hymn “Nearer My Got to Thee,” or, in the recollection of others (chiefly wireless operator Harold Bride), “Songe d’Automne,” more commonly referred to as “Autumn.” Walter Lord devotes an entire chapter to the subject in his Night to Remember follow up, The Night Lives On (1986), saying the evidence favors “Autumn.”
Cameron opted to go with “Nearer My God To Thee” anyway. “I understand the dramatic reasons,” says Whitcomb. “It’s better to have it be ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe we could do a sort of complementary record.’ It was a chance to put on a CD a lot of period music that otherwise wouldn’t get on a CD through a major company. That’s one of the main things that propelled me to do it. I knew I had a chance to expose some of this great music — it’s called ‘British Light Music’ — and British music hall songs. I’ve always loved British music hall songs.”
Whitcomb took his idea to Rhino Records, who were receptive. “We just had a few weeks to put the whole thing together,” he says. “By this time I’d collected most of the music that could have been played aboard the ship; I’d got good access because of my connection with the film. I got access to the White Star Line’s music book that had the list of all the songs the band could be asked to play; that’s how I knew what was in their repertoire. So I selected songs from that.” The numbers range from light classical pieces (“The Merry Widow Waltz”), to popular songs (“Glow-Worm”), to ragtime (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”). “‘And then I thought, ‘I wonder what they were playing in the steerage class?’” Whitcomb says. “I knew they had a piano down there and I thought, ‘I wonder if the passengers there, they might have had a sing-a-long or something, a dance.’ And so I was able to put on the record some music hall songs, the sort of things you might have heard in the steerage” — such as “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” and “Frankie and Johnny.”
Whitcomb also wrote a few numbers, including the opening track, “The White Star March,” credited to the mythical “J.T. Gardner.” The piece serves as an overture for the album, seguing into a recitation of Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain (Lines On The Loss Of The Titanic),” written shortly after the disaster, and read by Whitcomb.
After the haunting poem (“And as the smart ship grew/In stature, grace, and hue/In shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg too”), the program continues; light, sometimes breezy, and very charming. Going with Walter Lord’s version of events, the final number is “Songe d’Automne” (Dream of Autumn), a melancholy piece with a lighter middle section — which, if it was the last song played, would have provided a poignant soundtrack to the ship’s final moments.
Then, on the CD, comes a “hidden” track, the bittersweet “Raggin’ The Waves,” credited to one “Harry Poole,” though written by Whitcomb. “Both ‘The White Star March’ and ‘Raggin’ The Waves’ are kind of bookends,” Whitcomb explains. “Everything else is completely authentic, but my considerations were to make a good record. I wanted something sprightly to start off the record. And with ‘Raggin’ the Waves,’ I thought ‘Well, at the end, let’s imagine that the ship is down. It’s at the bottom.’ It’s supposed to sound like an eerie piece coming from the bottom of the ocean, the ocean bed.” The mournful melody certainly sounds as if it’s rising from the decks of a ghost ship.
Titanic: Music As Heard on the Fateful Voyage was released in June 1997, winning the Grammy for “Best Recording Package” (Whitcomb also received a nomination for Best Album Notes). It provides an aural snapshot into a lost era. “There was, as yet, no distinction between highbrow and lowbrow,” Whitcomb writes in his liner notes. “Organ-grinders played Brahms and Bizet and Wagner. Sir Edward Elgar wrote popular waltzes. Classically trained musicians wrote for the frothy, girlie-filled musical comedies. Music hall songs could please royal ears: Queen Vitoria had been fond of a piece called ‘Come Where The Booze Is Cheaper.’”
“I wanted to make a record that was really good musically, that you could play without knowing anything about the Titanic,” says Whitcomb. “And I wanted to have a record that wasn’t just a document; I wanted to go above that and create something artistic.” In addition to the dramatic narrative, the album also stands as a heartfelt tribute to the Titanic’s musicians, who were not making a bid for immortality when they arrived on deck on the ship’s final night to play one last time. They were simply doing their duty. But by remaining at their post to the bitter end, they passed into history — a selfless act epitomized by the phrase: “And the band played on.”