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Timothy Larsen

Book Note

The music of the "Titanic"

The sinking of the Titanic is primarily a story of human hubris, greed, stupidity, and selfishness. There was blame to go around—and people sensed it even at the time. It was therefore a psychological relief to latch onto the few stories of noble fortitude or self-sacrifice that also emerged from the tragedy. The greatest of these was the story of the ship's eight musicians who chose to try to calm and console others by playing music to the end, foregoing any efforts to attempt to save their own lives.

Steve Turner's The Band that Played On rightly celebrates the actions of these men. Their story cannot be debunked; it was confirmed by many eyewitnesses and was patently heroic. From the first, however, some people thought that accounts that their swan song was the hymn, "Nearer, My God, to Thee," were too good to be true. Turner convincingly presents the overwhelming evidence for the veracity of even this sacred touch.

The Titanic is a subject that has been often picked over, but in this well-researched and gripping book, Turner has successfully found fascinating, hitherto undiscovered information and an illuminating angle on the entirety of this historic event. This fresh material includes new villains. The brothers Charles and Frederick Black were agents who had secured a monopoly on supplying musicians to these liners. With sharp business practices, they mercilessly squeezed every shilling they could out of their employees. This included making them pay for their own uniforms. One of the eight musicians, John Law Hume, had died with his bill to have his jacket adjusted to conform to the insignia of the White Star line still unpaid. Within weeks of his death, the Blacks had sent Hume's father, Andrew, a cold business letter that did not even acknowledge the loss of his son but simply demanded payment of this trifling sum still outstanding on his account.

If that story arouses your indignation, what is one to make of the rapacious actions of Andrew Hume himself? His son had left behind a pregnant fiancée whom he had planned to marry that summer. In order to try to appropriate for himself money raised by charities for the relatives of victims, this bereaved father refused to confirm that they were engaged and was apparently quite willing to disown his own grandchild as no blood relation of his.

The most attractive figure in Turner's tale is the leader of the band, Wallace Hartley, an upright, godly Methodist who had named "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as one of his favorite hymns. Turner plausibly surmises that it was Hartley's sterling character and resolution which inspired the band to behave so nobly. The tight-fisted policies of the Blacks meant that the musicians, unlike everyone else working on the ship, were not actually part of the crew. This deprived them of certain rights and benefits, but it also meant that they were not under the captain's command or any obligation to do anything other than look after themselves in an emergency. Nevertheless, Hartley had a sense of duty to a higher Master and Commander.

Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, is the author most recently of A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians, published in March by Oxford University Press.

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