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How many recipients of the Charles William Black Trust student Fellowship at the Royal Academy of Music have had the slightest notion of the said Mr Black’s link to the Titanic disaster? As we read here, the CW & Fn Black agency booked musicians onto the myriad liners that then ploughed the ocean waves. And exploited them, the eight musicians on Titanic included.

The full story of these Titanic players can never have been described in such detail. What emerges is a snapshot of an area of music-making that provided employment for thousands of musicians in the early 20th century. Many of them (like Georges Krins, violinist on the Titanic) were conservatoire alumni, but the whole gamut of backgrounds was represented. All became used to turning their hands to all kinds of stuff– Titanic musician Fred clarke, for example, played both with a symphony orchestra in Liverpool and at the argyle Theatre of Varieties in Birkenhead. Such flexibility was required at sea: the White Star Line’s music book contained all sorts.

Turner does a terrific job in piecing together the musical and personal backgrounds of the Titanic players and describing how they came to be on board. The most evocative pen picture is of ‘bandleader’ Wallace Hartley, who forsook a banking career to pursue music making.

Turner of course builds to the climactic moments and the players’ role in trying to calm nerves with lively music. Did they thereby convey an impression of normality when a sense of urgency was demanded? – one interesting question Turner considers. He devotes plenty of space to the legend of the band playing the hymn Nearer My God to Thee. Which of several melodies to the text was played? Was this indeed the last music sounded before Titanic disappeared?

The book ends with a story we may soon find grabbing headlines: did Wallace Hartley’s violin indeed survive? If investigations into the provenance of a particular instrument prove positive, an auction next year will likely see a record price for a Titanic artefact.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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