Titanic sinking echoes through the ages

Violinist Lizzie Ball
Violinist Lizzie Ball

A CONCERT in aid of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at Ecclesall Parish Church this Saturday is also a partial commemoration of the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago.

In particular, the eight-member Titanic ‘band’ that continued to play cheerful music in an attempt to keep the passengers calm as the ship slowly sank on the night of April 14-15, 1912.

The heroism of the musicians captured the imagination of many, fuelled by reports that the final item they played was Nearer, My God, to Thee as the ship took its final plunge.

Four of five items (one fleetingly) performed at the concert in remembrance of the band quote the hymn, although if the legend is true which version they played is not recorded.

It would have been in one of three settings of the famous text penned by Sarah Flowers Adams, ‘Bethany’ by Lowell Mason (1856), ‘Horbury’ by John Bacchus Dykes (1861), or ‘Propior Deo’ (Nearer to God) by Arthur Sullivan (1872).

‘Bethany’ is heard in three ‘Titanic’ films: in 1943, 1953, 1997, but in A Night to Remember (1958) it is ‘Horbury’. The band’s leader Wallace Hartley, however, would have had ‘Propior Deo’ in his blood, as his father was a Methodist choirmaster of long standing.

In reality, ‘Horbury’ would be the favourite as the Titanic musicians (including six Brits) were from this side of the Atlantic, where the text is normally sung to that tune in the UK, although Methodists prefer ‘Propior Deo’.

It was ‘Horbury’ that was heard at a Titanic Band Memorial Concert with Elgar and Beecham among the conductors at the Royal Albert Hall in 1912 involving 500 musicians from London’s orchestras.

In America and elsewhere the words are usually sung to ‘Bethany’ which is quoted in the first Titanic piece on Saturday, a song for voice and piano written in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy by the American composer Harold Jones and lyricist Mark Bean.

An orchestral piece by the evening’s conductor, Michael Coe, written, as the Jones song was, specifically in memory of the band, links all three tunes to the title of the hymn. Also heard is Carl Nielsen’s dramatic paraphrase using four notes of ‘Bethany’ for wind band (here orchestrated) for a benefit concert in Copenhagen for the families of the Titanic musicians, in the event cancelled after the Danish king died in May 1912.

More of ‘Bethany’ will heard in James Horner’s music from James Cameron’s 1997 film, while the fifth Titanic piece has nothing to do with the hymn: March from Bizet’s Carmen, which the ship’s musicians may well have played.

Elsewhere in the concert are Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet overtures and the latter’s Violin Concerto with Lizzie Ball, described by Nigel Kennedy as “a killer musician and violinist”, as the soloist.

A one-time leader of the City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra (not too long ago), Lizzie has certainly developed an extremely impressive, musically diverse international career, including becoming an accomplished vocalist – guess who is singing the Jones song at the concert!