“Gentlemen. It has been a privilege playing with you tonight.”
In James Cameron’s Titanic, bandmaster Wallace Henry Hartley says these words to his fellow musicians in the wee hours of the morning on April 15th, 1912 - right before the tilting ship sinks slowly into the icy Atlantic. The musicians who played to keep passengers calm during the lifeboat loading have become a favorite piece of Titanic lore, exemplifying generosity and bravery in the face of the worst. All eight members of the band would perish in the sinking, after playing to the very end.
Wallace Henry Hartley was born in Colne, Lancashire in 1878. His father was the choirmaster at the local Methodist church, which is where the young Hartley developed not only a love of music, but of hymns. At age 33, he signed on as bandmaster and violinist for the RMS Titanic, leaving his fiancée, Maria Robinson behind.
Although the last song played by the band has been contested, it is popularly accepted to have been “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” The hymn would also play at Hartley’s funeral in Colne, where his recovered body made it home to a hero’s welcome. The opening bars of the song are etched into the base of his elegant gravestone, along with a representation of his beloved rosewood violin, which had been a gift from Maria.
Astonishingly, Hartley’s violin was ultimately recovered. Maria Robinson’s diary contains a telegram transcript dated July 19th, 1912, in which she conveys her gratitude to those who made the violin’s return possible. The instrument disappeared from the public eye for several decades before eventually being acquired by auctioneers Henry Aldridge & Son. In October of 2013, it sold for an astonishing $1.45 million, a testament to the intense and enduring emotional power behind Hartley’s story.