The survivors who watched Titanic sink from their lifeboats were the ones who claimed that they had heard Nearer, My God, To Thee from across the water. There are many questions that surround Titanic’s final number. This one stands out: Did survivors who stayed on the ship to the end, who went down with her, also hear the hymn?
Walter Lord, Titanic historian, interviewed survivor Spencer Silverthorne on July 14, 1955.
“Rowing away, he was struck by the fantastically clear night. So sharp and clear that it affected not only sight, but hearing. The music from the band drifted clearly across the water. [He did not] know what they were playing, but [at least at that early stage in the sinking, near 1:00AM] it certainly wasn’t “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Silverthorne was lowered in a lifeboat at around 1:00am, more than an hour before Titanic sank. The fact that he didn’t hear the hymn at that time in the sinking is interesting but does not help solve the question of Titanic’s final number. This series of posts is going to focus on survivors who remained on the ship to the last, who insisted they did not hear Nearer, My God, To Thee.
Barkworth's Accounts of the Band
A. H. (Algernon) Barkworth, Titanic survivor. April 26, 1912, Evening Banner (reprinted from April 25, 1912 New York Sun)
“I have read several accounts of how the band played while the ship went down 'Nearer My God to Thee'. I do not wish to detract from the bravery of anybody, but I might mention that when I first came on deck the band was playing a waltz. The next time I passed where the band had been stationed, the members of it had thrown down their instruments and were not to be seen. But I shall never forget the fierce jarring notes of that waltz they played.”
It has been suggested that Barkworth was here referring to a trip to his cabin earlier in the sinking, and that the bandsmen had simply set down their instruments for a break and then returned to resume their performance. While this is possible, it seems as though Barkworth was making a special effort to explain that he did not feel the band went down playing Nearer, My God, To Thee. As he was on the ship to the end, he felt he was qualified to say he had not heard the hymn.
In the same vein that Silverthorne knew he had not heard Nearer, My God, To Thee when he left the ship, Barkworth knew he also had not heard the hymn before he jumped. Neither one described their last moments on Titanic in terms of timing by the clock. Walter Lord added that Silverthorne had left in the lifeboat at about 1:00am. Both recalled hearing the band's music in direct association with what they were doing. Their actions measured the time. Barkworth measured his last moments on Titanic, and the band's last number, by his final trip to his cabin.
A. H. (Algernon) Barkworth, Titanic survivor. May 18, 1912, interviewed in England.
"Questioned as to the band on the Titanic playing up to the last minutes after the boats had been lowered away, Mr. Barkworth said: 'I returned to my cabin to try and get some things but found the door locked. The band at that time was playing a waltz tune; but when I returned from the cabin, their instruments were thrown down. This was some little time before I left the ship; whether the band commenced to play again I cannot say, for they were on the opposite side of the ship to that I climbed over. They might have returned to their instruments.'”
First Class Cabin A23
Barkworth had been berthed in First Class cabin A23 on A Deck forward, which would have stayed above water until very late in the sinking, so it is conceivable that he would have still been able to go to his cabin door even within fifteen minutes of the final plunge, and possible that his last visit coincided with the band’s final number.
To retrace his steps that night, he would have been outside on the Boat Deck or on the A Deck Promenade and gone inside the First Class Entrance. This was the Grand Staircase, which had entrances from both levels. Once inside he heard the music at full volume, for it was here on the Port side of the Boat Deck, at the top of the Grand Staircase where the band played. Barkworth’s cabin was on A Deck, one deck lower than the band, but the music would have carried down the staircase and he would have heard it quite clearly.
At this point the water was rising up the stairwell level by level, and would have been visible to the bandsmen had they but looked over the rail, for the stairs were designed to have an open view down through the ship. The rising water would have indicated to the bandsmen how much time they had.
Barkworth found his cabin door locked and ran back up the stairs to the Boat Deck level of the Grand Staircase before returning to the outer deck. This is known because he described seeing the abandoned instruments. He jumped from the ship on the Starboard side, and after she had sunk, swam across to Collapsible B (Port side), which was upside down.
A letter he dictated to a friend suggests he had returned to his cabin twice, the first time shortly after midnight to put on his lifebelt, which was during the time that the steam was escaping.
A. H. (Algernon) Barkworth, Titanic survivor. Dictated to Mrs. Francis.
"The forecastle made a heavy list to the starboard. I was there found by several friends and we went up to the boat deck and heard the order given to put on our life belts. We returned to our cabins and put them on and went up again on deck. Again, I noticed that the band was playing a waltz tune. Soon afterwards we went to see the boats lowered. The escaping steam making a deafening sound, women and children were put into the boats first."
Both times Barkworth passed the band on his way to his cabin he heard them playing a waltz. As there were many waltzes in the White Star Line Songbook it is most likely he heard two different numbers. The interesting point to take from his accounts is that he felt the band’s last number was not a hymn, but a waltz. He also described the music as having “fierce, jarring notes.”
Marconi operator Harold Bride had heard the same band playing only moments before Titanic sank. He identified the number he heard as ‘Autumn.’ Barkworth identified the music he heard as a ‘waltz.’ It is possible that Bride’s ‘Autumn’ and Barkworth’s waltz are one in the same number. Songe d’automne is a waltz.
But could this number fit the description of "fierce" or "jarring?"
Songe d'automne is written in Rondo Form, and with the introduction the music sections are thus: Intro, ABACA. The Introduction is the slow section which begins with notes identical to Nearer, My God, To Thee. The A sections have the main, slow C minor melancholic theme. These A sections alternate with the contrasting lively sections B and C.
Listen to this recording of Songe d’automne. At 1:47 you will hear the lively B section, and at 3:00, the C section which has angular, wide leaps. To someone who was concerned with survival, the themes in B and C might have had a jarring or fierce effect.
If Barkworth heard the C section on his way to his cabin, it is possible that while he was there the band abruptly ended their performance before they reached the end of the printed music. It is possible that, in the middle of the music, they had suddenly "thrown down their instruments."
Van Anda New York Times: ‘Autumn’
Titanic’s Final Number: Three Note Theory
Titanic’s Final Number: Hartley's Violin
Titanic’s Final Number: Logistics, proximity and a good ear
Spencer Silverthorne: A Tale Retold, 1955 Walter Lord interview
Barkworth account Evening Banner/New York Sun
Barkworth Letter dictated to Mrs. Francis