April 15: The Titanic Orchestra

Titanic-bandIt was in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912 that the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean.

You’re probably aware of the story of the Titanic, in fact I’m told there are a few popular movies that dramatize the ship’s lone journey; so rather than talk about the ill-fated ship, let’s look at the tale of the Titanic‘s orchestra. The orchestra’s eight musicians played in two different groups: a string quintet that played after-dinner and teatime concerts and a violin, cello and piano that played in two of the ship’s restaurants. As the ship began to sink, the band members gathered in the first class lounge (later moving onto the deck) to play music with the intention of keeping the passengers calm. It’s said that the orchestra kept playing until the ship finally sunk.

As with most matters Titanic, there’s a little bit of legend and mystery attached to the ship’s band; namely, there is a degree of debate over what the last song the orchestra played was. Vera Dick, a first-class Canadian passenger, claimed that she had heard the band play the hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee” just before the Titanic sank. There was some credence to this claim, as it was reported that orchestra leader Wallace Hartley had once told a friend that if he were ever on a sinking ship, “Nearer, My God, To Thee” would be the last song he ever performed.

However, Dick’s account of events is highly unlikely for two reasons: First, she might have confused the events of the Titanic‘s sinking with the sinking of the SS Valencia which had sunk off the coast of British Columbia in 1906. As the Valencia sunk, the passengers and crew that remained trapped on the ship began to sing “Nearer, My God, To Thee”. Secondly, Dick had escaped in a lifeboat an hour and a half before the Titanic went down, so it’s unlikely that she could have heard the orchestra play as the ship went below the waves.

Titanic wireless operator Harold Bride had a different account of events. Bride was still on board the Titanic as it sunk, only surviving by grabbing on to one of the ship’s collapsible lifeboats. He claimed that the last song the band played was “Autumn”, probably a reference to either the humn of the same name or Archibald Joyce’s waltz “Songe d’Automne” which was quite popular at the time. The one problem with Bride’s account is that neither of those songs was in the band’s songbook.

For what it’s worth, Colonel Archibald Gracie, an amateur historian, had his own account of the events, saying that he heard a “cheerful” tune that he couldn’t recognize. That said, he did discredit the idea that “Nearer, My God, To Thee” was the last piece of music performed on the doomed ocean liner, writing “I assuredly should have noticed it and regarded it as a tactless warning of immediate death to us all and one likely to create panic.”

For the purpose of drinking, we’re going to side with Bride’s account of events today and make an Autumn Leaves as a tribute to the Titanic band. This drink was created by Jeffrey Morgenthaler, one-time bartender at Eugene, Oregon’s now shuttered Bel Ami Lounge. Although it was created in 2008, it’s a decidedly retro cocktail.

Autumn Leaves

  • 1 ounce Rye Whiskey
  • 1 ounce Calvados
  • 1 ounce Sweet Vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce Strega Liqueur
  • 2 dashes Bitters

Stir all ingredients with ice in a mixing glass and strain into an ice filled rocks glass. Garnish with an orange zest.

Tomorrow: The king of Ithica returns.

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