Last Thursday evening, I attended lovely event in remembrance of R.M.S. Titanic to benefit the Fairfield County Heritage Association. There was a silent auction, dinner, live music and a presentation about the fashion of Titanic's first class passengers by Costume Designer Loraine Dawley who has lectured at the Grand Hotel's annual Titanic event. Thursday marked the 107th anniversary of the ship's last port of call in Queenstown (now Cobh) before journeying towards New York. Today, just four days later in the early hours of April 15th, the liner met her end in the icy Atlantic.
My twin sister Sheryl and I were seated at a table near the front next to the string quintet. Before and during dinner, the teacher-student ensemble The Harmonics performed selections from the White Star Line repertoire, ending with "Nearer, My God, To Thee," a hymn historically associated with the ship after survivors reported that the musicians were playing in Titanic's final hour. In my video excerpt (swipe through for video), you can hear dinnerware clinking and people chattering as they played, just as it would have been on the ship in its treatment as background music.
To enjoy some of the music performed on Titanic, listen to "Wedding Dance" and more via a playlist of selections from the White Star Line Songbook. Repertoire included overtures, waltzes, ragtime, hymns, etc., reflecting the music of the era and a listening public with eclectic musical taste.
Although there are conflicting accounts about what Titanic's musicians played and how long they played, the fact is that they performed, offering calm and order for passengers boarding lifeboats as well as peace and dignity for those whose death was an inevitability. The musicians, whose role it was to be heard but not necessarily seen, have ironically emerged as some of the most recognized figures and heroes in this tragic story through popular culture, scholarship and eyewitness accounts.
Survivor Lawrence Beesley recalled: "Many brave things were done that night but none more brave than by those few men playing minute after minute as the ship settled quietly lower and lower in the sea...the music they played serving alike as their own immortal requiem and their right to be recorded on the rulls of undying fame."
There was a heightened interest in Titanic around 2012 on the occasion of its centenary which resulted in new films and books from contemporary research and findings, including those relating to its music. In 2013, researchers were able to authenticate the violin owned by Titanic's bandmaster Wallace Hartley (see article). Hartley scholar Christian Tennyson-Ekeburg was involved in the research process and penned a new biography entitled, Nearer, Our God, To Thee, containing 400 pages and 350 illustrations. In 2014, PBS released the documentary Titanic: Band of Courage. In 2015, Titanic Live premiered, thrilling audiences with live orchestral and choral accompaniment to James Cameron's film.
Even after Titanic plunged into the sea, music could still be heard. A musical toy pig played repeatedly in a lifeboat with its tune calming passengers, especially children, in attempts to block the horrific sounds around them. The pig's tune was heard again in 2013 when it was repaired, played and recorded by experts at the National Maritime Museum (see article). It was "La Sorella" (aka "La Matchiche") composed in 1905 by Charles Borel-Clerc. The public's continued fascination with the music and musicians of Titanic plays a significant role in sustaining our shared connection to the ship across generations, and the event that we attended is just one example.
After dinner, the evening's program was appropriately followed by a presentation on Titanic fashion. To me, it's impossible to see an Edwardian silhouette and not hear the music! Music and fashion are so complimentary in their reflection of culture, time and place. Wearing 1912 attire that she had designed and tailored herself, Loraine made a grand entrance. She was very friendly and eager to share her knowledge, stressing that for passengers on the Titanic, especially those in first and second class, the trip wasn’t just a method of travel from one place to another, but a lavish party. Women would change clothes at least four times a day according to social conventions, and this meant that many first class ladies took maids with them on the voyage. Fascinated by this designer, historian and preservationist in period dress, Sheryl and I didn't miss the chance to speak with her afterwards!
My passion for history includes many subjects beyond music, and fortunately, many of these subjects do intersect with music. Such is the case for my interest in maritime history, which I hope to explore in greater depth. I've always been fascinated by the Titanic as well as my family's history at sea. My family took summer trips to the ocean and my first car when I was 16 (shared with my sister, of course!) had the custom license plate "SS Davis." When studying at the University of Westminster, I visited some of England's coastal cities. My grandfather was transported to England on the Queen Mary during WWII along with other American soldiers and allied forces. I didn't know for the longest time that he had taken a coat hook as a "souvenir" from the famed Cunard liner!
I learned about my grandfather's lineage (Nye) through family reunions, when I discovered the Nye Homestead (1678) in East Sandwich, MA (Cape Cod). And through my own research, I began learning more specific details about the achievements of my ancestors. Captain Ezra Nye was presented with a gold chronometer by Queen Victoria for helping save the crew of a foundering British bark, the Jessie Stephens, in 1852. Captain Peleg Nye, who was snatched in the mouth of a harpooned whale and lived to tell the tale, earned the nickname "The Jonah of Cape Cod." A book with this title was written about his life in 2015 by author Nils V. Bockmann. Watch his 2017 presentation for "Tales of Cape Cod Presents."
"The Nye family was among the gentry in the seafaring pecking order of New Bedford and Fairhaven at the time. A fleet of whaling ships flew under the blue Nye flag. Nyes were merchant captains, diplomatic envoys in China, abolitionists and industrial innovators" (source).
When I discovered Titanic survivor Elizabeth Nye, I thought perhaps she was also a relative, but after research and consultation with the family genealogist, a connection could not be established. I was disappointed, but my enthusiasm was soon restored by a new discovery. In 2018, a book entitled, Adrift, written by New York Times Bestselling Author Brian Murphy, was released about Thomas Nye's survival of the John Rutledge shipwreck in 1856 (see article from the New England Historical Society).
Predating the transatlantic telegraph, mariners had little information about ice conditions at that time. At best, they received details from arriving ships. Despite severe ice warnings, the John Rutledge departed Liverpool for New York when it struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Not only was Nye the sole survivor of his ship, but of a season that claimed 830 lives early that year, which according to Murphy, was among the most tragic for decades to come. "The Fifth Boat" by historians David and Jeanne Heidler is an excellent summary of Nye's survival story and rescue from lifeboat No. 5.
Murphy wrote an article, entitled: "Long before the Titanic, another tragedy in 'Ice Alley' helped change Atlantic crossings." The U.S. Nautical Magazine and Naval Journal cited the John Rutledge and other lost ships along with Nye’s accounts to support the requirement for watertight compartments on U.S. vessels. As a result, some shipbuilders began making the safety modifications. It was a step forward and Nye was largely responsible. As a relative, this sets my heart aglow despite the fact that "It finally took the loss of the Titanic, decades later, to force sweeping rules for bulkheads and water-blocking chambers in all U.S. ships," as Murphy reminds us. Listen to the 2018 podcast, "In the 1850s, navigating Ice Alley was deadly for ships" by Retropod Host Mike Rosenwald.
The terror of what Nye experienced did not deter him from continuing to sail after his recovery. What encouraged his return to the sea after it nearly claimed his life? What role did music play in his survival, healing and seafaring life in general? Did he find peace and joy in the lyrics and melodies of hymns and popular songs? What of sea shanties? Did he sing or play instruments?
Last month, I contacted author Jim Coogan about his 2003 book, Sail Away Ladies: Stories of Cape Cod Women in the Age of Sail, and subsequent research in hopes that I could find some information about Nye women. And I did! Caroline L. Nye married Captain Albert Sherman and spent some years in the high Arctic, north of the Yukon territory, aboard her husband’s whaler, the Beluga. Their second child, Helen, was born there near Herschel Island and is believed to be the first white child born north of the Arctic Circle. I'm certain that music had a place in their grand adventures!
Images (clockwise from left): 1) The Nye family whaling ships. Credit: Mystic Seaport Collections Research Center. 2) Current image of the Nye Homestead with family portraits and 1810 John Broadwood piano from London. Credit: Nye Family Association of America. 3) Artist drawing in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in April 1856 depicting the John Rutledge and the lifeboat with Thomas Nye and the other castaways. Credit: Library of Congress. 4) Newspaper clipping of April 3, 1856 headline from The Belmont Chronicle, St. Clairsville, Ohio. Credit: Newspapers.com.
These discoveries have set me on a path towards exploring more about my ancestry and music at sea. Although I'm usually landlocked with my work in classical and popular genres, I hope there will be opportunities for me in the maritime sector. We'll see where all roads lead. Just to be on this journey is gratifying, the culmination of it all. Honoring history through a familial narrative and indulging in this particular interest is truly a gift.
In closing, and in remembrance of the day, I'd like to share a poem written in 1860 by William Whiting which was set to music by John Dykes. It was among those hymns included in a service for about a hundred passengers in Titanic's second class dining room on the evening of April 14th. Watch its 2012 performance at St. Thomas' Parish Church in Belfast on BBC One's program Songs of Praise to commemorate the centenary of the tragedy.
Nobody felt Titanic's loss greater than Belfast, where she was built at Harland & Wolff Shipyard. Relatives of the lost gather every year to remember their loved ones. Music is how we celebrate life's joys and make sense of its horrors. It helps us navigate our grief, sustain and honor the fallen.
Eternal Father, strong to save
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea
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