The following is a guest post from Music Cataloger Laura Yust.
One hundred years ago, on April 14, 1912, the luxury steamship Titanic struck an iceberg and sank within just a few hours. Over 3,000 passengers and crew members were on board, and just over half of them died. It was one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history, made all the more dramatic because the Titanic was supposedly designed and constructed to be unsinkable. News about the disaster spread rapidly; people were deeply affected by the tragedy, and many responded by writing songs. Some of the piano-vocal sheet music composed to commemorate the sinking of the Titanic has been collected in the Music Division and is cataloged under the subject heading “Titanic (Steamship)—Songs and music” (call number: M1978 .T55). Many of the songs in this collection recognize and praise the musicians who stayed on the ship and continued to play in an effort to calm and reassure the passengers as they attempted to board lifeboats. Legend has it that the musicians played until the very last moment of their lives when they slipped into the icy water. There was some question about what music they played, but several survivors reported hearing the hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee”. Several of the more colorful and descriptive sheet music covers can be seen here in the Performing Arts Encyclopedia. The majority of the songs about the Titanic were published in 1912 and 1913. Interestingly, much of the music seems incongruously lighthearted, as it reflected popular music styles of the time. Some of it was written by notorious ‘song sharks’ who were not overly concerned with quality. The pieces in this collection range from a heartfelt amateur effort by someone who struggled to notate his or her musical ideas, to songs by M.C. Hanford, who wrote at least 22 songs to lyrics about the Titanic, all for the H. Kirkus Dugdale music publishing company. Apparently the company was a ‘song-poem’ factory located at 14th and ‘U’ Streets, N.W. right here in Washington, DC. Included in the collection is a postcard with the melody and lyrics of a song about the Titanic and an advertisement soliciting more lyrics for the Needham Music House, likely another song shark operation.
The subject of the Titanic has continued to interest people over the past century. English composer Gavin Bryars conceived of the idea for his composition The Sinking of the Titanic in 1969 as the musical equivalent of a conceptual work of art. He was intrigued with the idea of the musicians playing on deck while the ship sank and tried to create the sound, as he imagined it, of music being played underwater. The sound recording of this work is available in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Record Sound Division.
If you visit the Music Division to explore the sheet music about the wreck of the Titanic, you might want to wander down to the nearby waterfront at 4th and P Streets, S.W. to visit the Washington Titanic Memorial, constructed in memory of the men who perished in the event so that women and children could survive.