“Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.”

When World War I broke out, the French military issued summonses to compulsory military service. One young man, a cellist named Roger Bricoux, did not report for duty, and was listed as a deserter. It turned out that he had a good excuse for not reporting. He had died two years earlier as one of the bandsmen on the doomed ocean liner RMS Titanic.

I expect to see a lot of books and memorabilia over the next eight months or so as we approach the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, on April 15. I just read one new book on the ship, The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic, by Steve Turner.

There’s nothing terribly earth-shaking here, really — it’s just a good personal narrative of a specific set of persons who perished on the ship, providing background to one of the most famous facets of the disaster, namely, the ship’s band that went on deck and played almost, if not right up to, the very end. This is not a book for the forensics of why the ship went down, nor is it a “big picture” history, which I think is all to the good. Turner provides a nicely honed portrait of the kind of men who took up their instruments one last time as death confronted them.

As with any such narrative, there are things to learn that I never knew before. The musicians were all contracted by a single firm that pretty much handled all of the musical needs of Britain’s great cruise ships of the period, and the fellows in charge of this firm — brothers Charles William and Frederick Nixon Black — really don’t come off as having been nice fellows at all. Apparently musicians were charged for their tailoring needs on their on-board uniforms, and after the sinking, one of the musicians was still in arrears on his tailoring account, so the Blacks actually sent a bill to the poor fellow’s father.

Turner doesn’t just stop with the musicians and their deaths; he spends time at the end of the book describing what became of the families of the musicians as well (some of whom fared very poorly indeed), and he speculates on the possibility that an old violin may actually be the instrument Wallace Hartley — violinist and band leader — was playing on the voyage and the night in question. And yes, the question of what the actual final tune played that night — “Nearer My God To Thee” or “Autumn” — is dealt with.

This is an interesting read. Recommended.

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One Response to “Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.”

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    people controlling musicians have often been s.o.b.s – the ripoffs of the early r&b and rock artists, e.g., are legendary

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