Senan Molony reviews Steve Turner's new book about the musicians aboard the Titanic The Band that Played On
A hundred pages from the end, The Band That Played On (Steve Turner, Thomas Nelson Ltd) hits a jarring note.
The musicians of Titanic are playing, on p. 140, ‘despite the awfulness of what was happening,’ their backdrop ‘a scene of beauty: a clear sky, a bright moon, clearly visible stars…’
Screech! A bright moon? Clearly clear? There was no moon that night. The balloon of wind-filled, would-be romanticism is thus punctured, and it is hard to take this book seriously ever again.
Which, on reflection, is perhaps unfair. The author, having an inside jacket sleeve note about himself that would almost seek to confer a silver cufflink, is said to have ‘a special interest in music.’ Works relating to the Beatles, Johnny Cash and Marvin Gaye are cited. But he is out of his depth here, and not just navigationally. Cringe, Sir Thomas Beecham.
Yet there are redeeming tones and accents, not that this book is any kind of immortal symphony. He plays a good computer, this fellow, clearly having surfed the genealogical sheet-music of Ancestry.com the better to flesh out these maddeningly mundane musicians of supposedly undying fame – while also feeding his soul with the clackety-clack cadence of British railways.
The song of the intercity has enabled him to take his own photographs of buildings and memorials intended to offer an echo of the increasingly ancient past. One picture has a motorbike in the foreground as it displays the landmark dental practice and its pizza-kebab-curry shop next door. An attempted recreation of Edwardian elegance could have done without this image – but there are others of the period and much better quality, some previously unseen, and many no doubt derived from contacts made with relatives, so that the level of industry exhibited here is not to be sneezed at, or one might venture that such percussion might be said to be about as welcome as a persistent cough in the stalls.
But it is the reviewer’s prerogative to quibble, and there is much in this work to quibble about, despite the care taken in general and many new interesting insights offered, such as a couple of the band having enjoyed stints in Jamaica. Particularly surprising, however, is a claimed ‘special interest in music’ that does not seem to extend to the music of the period.
Quite why Helen Candee’s mention of the orchestra playing Puccini should draw the observation that ‘The Puccini was probably from Madame Butterfly’ [Not Madama Butterfly, notably] is absolutely baffling, especially since Puccini was so prolific. It seems as crass as concluding that any Marvin Gaye song must have been heard on the grapevine.
Similarly the author is all at sea with Offenbach and as to why the Bacarolle from the ‘Tales of Hoffman’ should have ever after, on being replayed, have instantly haunted the Countess of Rothes, who heard it that last night afloat.
Yet anyone who has ever registered the piece would recognise its spine-tingling early chills and the sobbing throbs of dread that follow. Turner completely fails to comprehend, and is mystified at ‘Lucy Noel Martha’ (sic) and her ‘cold and intense horror.’
More appalling still is the author’s apparent failure to grasp the meaning of the word ‘leader’ in orchestral terms, when applied to the first violin. Thus it is perfectly ordinary for Jock Hume, violinist, to be referred to – without usurpation – as the ‘leader’ of the Titanic orchestra. Turner performs disquieting somersaults in grappling with these apparent attempts to topple bandmaster Hartley, speculating at one point that Hume could have had command of the trio, while the former held sway with the quintet, among the eight musicians in total, many of whom ultimately remain mere shadows.
Although there are intriguing indications that they may have been more like modern pop stars than we think – a woman in every port, and maybe on every ship, although one daren’t recast plaster saints for risk of breaking the mould completely. Suffice to say that Hume wasn’t the only one of that noble host – just one of whom was married – to have left behind a girl in trouble.
Here the book scores well. Yet the scratches, squawks and scrapes disconcertingly mount up, and not just musically. We have the ‘Leyton’ Line, the Olympic as a Cunard liner (bottom p. 86), Jack Phillips as a ‘radio engineer,’ and the Titanic doing unparalleled speed to arrive in Southampton on the morning of April 3, instead of just before midnight.
But there are compensations for these moments that make a reader‘s resolution quaver, or turns them just plain crotchety. There are fine sketches of the men behind the C.W. & F.N. Black music agency, and both prose and photographic portraits of Ronald Brailey, the father of Titanic pianist Theodore, who was a shameless and famous spiritualist of the time, yet who somehow failed to prevent his boy from taking the maiden voyage and joining his informants on the ‘other side,’ not referring to New York.
There is one sweet transition between chapters – No. 10 ends with the musicians shutting their instruments ‘in their velvet beds,’ as Helen Candee memorably put it. No. 11 opens: ‘It was 11.45 (yikes) at night, according to ship’s time, when the Titanic grazed along the iceberg that would sent it to the ocean bed.’ The bed motif is thus replayed – and there appears almost the ghost of the vessel as a bow being drawn against a particularly harsh and icily unforgiving violin.
Like the voyage itself then – a book quite serenely pleasant in parts, even soothingly interesting, only to ultimately become something of a let-down. Overall, however, rather better than the usual flotsam and jetsam of this crowded trade. Not bad at all, in fact, meriting probably seven out of ten. And so one dutifully applauds, without ever once being tempted to cry out: ‘Bravo!’
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Added to Encyclopedia Titanica Friday 3rd June 2011, last updated Tuesday 30th September 2014.