Musicians on Liners


Margaret D. Mehl

I have a question I believe some of you with an interest in liners in general may be able to help me with.
In April 1901 the Japanese music student Taki Rentaro travelled to Germany on a ship called "Koenig Albert" as the third Japanese music student sent to Europe by the Japanese government. He wrote to a friend about life on the ship. Taki was particularly impressed by the musicians. The ship had an orchestra and a brass band, and Taki lists the players:
2 Vl.1,2 Vl.2, 1 Fl., 2 Cl., 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, and 1 bass. The orchestra played 3 times a day at coffee/tea/evening drink time and the band when they entered or left a harbour.
Taki was deeply impressed by the technical standard (better than the best students at his Tokyo college - although that may not have been saying much at the time) and the vast repertoire of waltzes, polkas, overtures and potpourris (he claimed on 21 April that he had not heard one piece 2x since leaving Yokohama on 6 April). Taki was critical of his fellow-passengers' attempts on the ship's pianos and even of the famous musicians he later heard in Leipzig, so his praise was surely not unfounded
Taki was also impressed, because the same musicians acted as waiters and saw to the baths and the cabins. He believed that Germany was such a musical country that even these people performing very lowly tasks were accomplished musicians.
My question: did he really witness unusually accomplished servants or (more likely, I suspect) did he in fact hear well-trained and highly accomplished musicians who were treated as servants and had to perform menial tasks when they were not playing?
I would be happy to hear something about the status of musicians on liners and also about any relevant literature which treats the question.
With best wishes,
I don't actually know anything for certain, but I remember reading somewhere that the WSL musicians had to memorise hundreds of tunes, and the leader used to just bark out the number, saying 185, and off they went. Quite an achievement, especially as many were quite young. On Titanic they travelled as 2nd class 'passengers' not employees, which allowed WSL to quibble successfully about compensation after the sinking. What you describe is vaguely reminiscent of the long-tradition of singing waiters. This is the sort of question Bob Godfrey excels in answering, so it might catch his eye.
Margaret, I'm sure I've read a similar tale about the German musos, but I can't recall where. It might have been in The Liners by Terry Coleman.

I'm not surprised that waiters were also capable musicians. In those days, if you wanted music, you had to play it, and working class men in particular were very keen musicians. In Britain ans Australia, they played in thousands of brass bands, often attached to their workplaces. D H Lawrence and Neville Cardus wrote movingly of the deep love of music found in British workers. Germany, of course, was full of musicians.

White Star employed one bugler steward, named Peter Fletcher on Titanic. He called passengers to meals, probably using a cornet. The other musos were provided by an agent. Their pay was low but they collected tips and did better than many think.

As a bit of a classical singer myself, I frankly don't believe that the band played several hundred pieces from memory. They were assembled at the last minute and can hardly have been expected to learn something like 30 hours of quite complicated music before the voyage. More likely they were formidable sight-readers.
yes, on reflection, I agree. I have always found it a bit hard to believe they learned all those tunes. They probably were all formidable sight-readers and/or had perfect pitch and could just extemporise as necessary. All they would have had to know was the key, which the leader could have given. Singing, I find that comparatively easy - but two-handed piano-playing - that's different! I don't have the natural ability to transpose and I find it very hard to follow an instruction. But to lucky others, it comes entirely naturally.
Monica and Dave,
Thanks for your quick replies. I still find it hard to believe that waiters would have had the skills to impress Taki - a critical observer! - so much, although I guess it's possible. As an amateur violinist (and a competent one, I like to think) I know from frustrating experience that so-called "light music" is far from easy to play. By the way, Taki does not mention them playing from memory.
As Monica says, the musicians on the Titanic travelled as passengers, and if I remember rightly they were professional musicians and not hired as waiters. But then the Titanic was perhaps not representative of liners in general at the time, being so luxurious.
I still wonder, how the "Koenig Albert" could manage to hire 2 bands worth of good musicians who also were waiters etc and whether they were hired as specially accomplished waiters or as musicians desperate for any job....
Best wishes, Margaret
Margaret, I found the reference I mentioned. It's actually on page 312 of The Sway of the Grand Saloon by John Brinnin. He quotes a passenger on Norddeutscher-Lloyd's Havel.

"It is pleasant to be summoned to one's meals, not by a barbarous gong, but by a civilized and inspiring bugle. Only musicians are employed as second class stewards, and an excellent band plays on deck every morning, so that even seasick passengers are reheartened. Who of us will ever forget the sweet, deep pleasure of being awakened on Sunday morning by the playing of Nearer, my God, to Thee?"

This was obviously written before 15 April 1912!

As to seasickness, I've never been "reheartened" by my CD player. Perhaps I need a live German band.
Thanks, that's illuminating! So Taki may well be right after all...