Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Musings on heroism, death, and music (and this isn't Les Mis) - prompted by Steve Turner's The Band That Played On

Title: The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic
Author: Steve Turner
Date of Publication: 2011
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Number of Pages: 242 (not including picture credits and index)

What Goodreads has to say:

"They kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had power to drown them into silence. The band was playing 'Nearer, My God, to Thee.' I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close." --CHARLOTTE COLLYER, TITANIC SURVIVOR

The movies, the documentaries, the museum exhibits. They often tell the same story about the "unsinkable" "Titanic," her wealthy passengers, the families torn apart, and the unthinkable end. But never before has "that glorious band"--the group of eight musicians who played on as the "Titanic" slipped deeper and deeper into the Atlantic Ocean--been explored in such depth. Steve Turner's extensive research reveals a fascinating story including dishonest agents, a clairvoyant, social climbers, and a fraudulent violin maker. Read what brought the band members together and how their music served as the haunting soundtrack for one of modern history's most tragic maritime disasters.

[Following this summary on Goodreads are several short book reviews, which you can read here. There's also a pretty good and fairly short review at this website, if you're interested.]

What I have to say:

The musicians of the Titanic have fascinated me since I first saw the movie - the scene featuring the band playing "Nearer My God To Thee" is my favorite. I always saw them as heroes for not only going down with the ship, but calmly playing a testimonial of their faith as they faced certain death in a matter of hours. Obviously, when I heard about this book while writing a paper on the Titanic and T.S. Eliot, I was very interested, and for good reason; it's an amazing story, and it's well told by Steve Turner.

The first chapter gives some information about the Titanic and the circumstances surrounding the return of its survivors on the Carpathia. Then, for about the first half of the book, the author introduces each of the eight musicians that played on the Titanic, giving their personal and family history from the time of their birth to when they signed onto the Titanic. This part of the book is interesting and important in telling us about all of the musicians and setting up the main event of the drama, but I found it a little tedious and slow at times. The next section of the book deals with the musicians' experience on the ship before disaster struck, with quotes from some of the passengers. Next, of course, comes the main disaster, again with quotes from surviving passengers about the band and the music they played. These two sections were my favorite; I found them engaging and inspiring. The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of the Titanic disaster, especially as it concerns the musicians and their families. The author tells us about memorial services and monuments dedicated to the musicians, as well as what happened to the musicians' families after the disaster and what legal problems they were involved in as a result of their sons' deaths on the Titanic. The final chapter informs readers about a violin which may or not have been the one played by the bandmaster on the Titanic as it went down. Turner gives the evidence for both sides of the argument. When the book was published in 2011, researchers were running tests to confirm (or deny) the authenticity of the violin, and the author speculates in the book that the world will know in 2012 whether or not the violin is authentic. I did some research and discovered that the violin's authenticity was eventually confirmed, and the violin itself was auctioned off for over $1 million (why didn't anybody tell me? I would have liked to own it!) You can read about it and see pictures of the violin here.

One of the best things about this book is that it makes you realize that the musicians on the Titanic were pretty ordinary people up to the moment of the ship's collision. They were all gifted and determined musicians, but apart from that there was nothing particularly extraordinary about them. If they hadn't signed onto the Titanic they would most likely have lived fairly normal lives: pursuing their careers, getting married, traveling - in the end they would have died and the world would eventually have forgotten about them. Even the act of playing their instruments as the ship sank would not be extraordinary in any other context. They merely did their job. And yet the world sees them as heroes.

Another thing this book did for me was to complicate my idea of heroism. In the aftermath of the disaster, many people praised the Titanic's musicians as examples of British heroism. But a few disagreed: Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, and the playwright George Bernard Shaw spoke out against the public celebration of the band's heroism. They argued that it would have been much better if, instead of playing the hero, the musicians had taken a lifeboat and reached home in safety. Shaw even suggested that the music played on deck by the band may have convinced passengers that nothing was wrong - until it was too late. He saw the musicians' actions as part of a preordained drama in which everyone was expected to face death bravely and calmly, while playing a hymn, no less.

These arguments are disquieting, to say the least. They are obviously well articulated, and the repercussions of accepting them are earth-shattering. It is the dilemma between the two poems "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "Dulce et Decorum Est." In other words, is it better to die for your country, or to save you own skin in order to return to your family and friends in safety? I feel an overwhelming admiration for the light brigade, who plunge into battle knowing full well that they cannot hope to win and will probably all die, but I also realize the awful waste, and find that the poet of "Dulce et Decorum Est," hits close to home when he contrasts the horrors of trench warfare with the "old lie" that it is sweet and right to die for one's country. In the end, I suppose I'm a Romantic living in a Modern world, and thus with Modern sensibilities.

Anyway, no matter how disquieting I find Conrad's and Shaw's objections, when all is said and done I find that I cannot see the 8 musicians of the Titanic as anything but heroes. In spite of the fact that they may have been able to reach safety if they hadn't kept on playing, and in spite of the fact that they may have been acting out a Victorian drama, can we really say that a man declaring his faith in God while the ship goes down under him and the icy ocean swirls ever nearer is not a hero?

According to his friends and family, "Nearer My God To Thee" was the favorite hymn of the bandmaster and lead violinist, Wallace Hartley. There is even one source, possibly inaccurate, claiming that Hartley had been reserving the hymn for his funeral. When he realized that he was going to die on the Titanic, Hartley stopped playing ragtime, as the band had been doing thus far, and struck up a desperate declaration of faith. As a fellow musician is quoted as saying in Turner's book, "I believe, knowing they were doomed as a result of their own heroism, the members of the ship's orchestra thus commended their own souls to God, giving expression to their petition in the notes of their instruments" (148-149). Across the ocean and across the years, the act of Wallace Hartley and his fellow band-members stands as a declaration of faith. It survived the sinking of the Titanic amid a churning Atlantic Ocean, and it will survive the churning of the present times, amid which faith and integrity seem to have sunk.

So I ask you, faithful and persistent reader (thanks for sticking with me through my ponderings), if you stood on the deck of the Titanic with a violin resting on your shoulder and a bow in your hand, watching your chances of escape gradually grow lower and lower, and realizing the inevitable: that you were going to drown in the Atlantic very soon - what song would you play?

Perhaps it is unoriginal of me, but if I stood in that position, I really think, along with Wallace Hartley, that "I would [not] do better than play...'Nearer My God To Thee.'"

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