Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix A Ship That Won't Sink

Titanic CDs surface in record numbers.

By Jeffrey Gantz

APRIL 13, 1998:  How big is Titanic? It's brought a whole new definition of retro to pop. There's James Horner's film soundtrack, of course, Music from the Motion Picture Titanic (Sony), with its Irishy score and Celine Dion-delivered hit song, "My Heart Will Go On" (both Oscar winners). There's Titanic: A New Musical (RCA Victor), the original Broadway soundtrack for the Tony-winning show that's due to steam into Boston in June of next year.

But what's really making waves is the outpouring of "as heard on the Titanic" releases. There almost as many CDs floating around as there were lifeboats bobbing in the North Atlantic -- most of it music that Lawrence Welk would have rejected as too conservative! Those of you who'd like to commemorate the fateful night this Tuesday (the great ship went down April 14-15, 1912) probably won't be able to dress like the Titanic passengers (J. Peterman has offered Kate's "Rose at the Rail" dress for $35,000, Billy Zane's tux for $18,000, and Leo's cotton-and-corduroy outfit for $9000), or feast on the first-class dining-saloon menu of "Consommé Olga" and "Filet Mignons Lili." But you can listen to the same music that the White Star musicians were playing. So pour yourself a glass of champagne (first-, second-, or third-class, depending on your pocketbook), pull up one of those upper-deck slatted benches (still available from Peterman for only $2750), and settle down to your choice of And the Band Played On: Music Played on the Titanic (London), The Last Dance: Music for a Vanishing Era (BMG/DHM), Music from the Titanic (Compose), Titanic: Music As Heard on the Fateful Voyage (Rhino), Music Aboard the Titanic (Inside Sounds), Titanic Serenade: Music from an Age of Elegance (BCI Music), or Gavin Bryars's The Sinking of the Titanic (Point Music).

It's a wonder the passengers had any time left to eat, drink, and, uh, socialize. We don't actually know what music was heard on the Titanic, since all eight brave souls who played it went down with the ship. We're not even sure of the last number the band performed up on deck as the Titanic was sinking. Wireless officer Harold Bride heard "Autumn" as he was drifting away in a lifeboat. Legend says it was "Nearer My God to Thee."

What we do have is the White Star songbook, from which selections played on the Titanic and its sister ship the Olympic were drawn. It's a mixed bag: light classical music, bits of opera and operetta, musical comedies, popular songs and dances, English music hall, American vaudeville and rags and marches. In James Cameron's Oscar-winning film, the White Star Orchestra is portrayed by an actual piano quintet, I Salonisti, and they're the (oddly uncredited) musicians on two of these CDs. The Last Dance: Music for a Vanishing Era is given over entirely to European bonbons: Debussy's La fille aux cheveux du lin, Ravel's L'heure espagnole, Sibelius's Valse triste, two pieces by Fritz Kreisler. It's salon music, polished and polite but without passion. Only the concluding Csárdás by Vittorio Monti kicks up its heels, and before then you'll likely have gone down to steerage to see what the third-class passengers are up to.

I Salonisti's other CD, And the Band Played On: Music Played on the Titanic, has a brighter booklet cover, better notes (though none of these releases really tells you much about the music), and a more representative selection: the Sousa march El Capitan, Sydney Baynes's seductive Destiny waltz, Paul Linke's Glow-Worm, some Scott Joplin, some Johann Strauss, some Irving Berlin, Schubert's sublime "Ständchen," Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, "Nearer My God to Thee." Only two selections overlap: Dvorák's "Humoresque" and the intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, the latter played more operatically on the London CD.

Carl Wolfe's Music Aboard the Titanic takes the high classical road -- By the Beautiful Blue Danube, "Vilia" and the big waltz from The Merry Widow, the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky's First String Quartet, a Chopin nocturne -- while also throwing in Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," and the Arthur Sullivan setting of "Nearer My God to Thee" (rather than the "Bethany" hymn tune familiar to most Americans). The sound is mostly violin and piano, the playing undistinguished (choppy Chopin, Lehár that doesn't swing); but the second of Wolfe's two original compositions, "Fateful Hour," has an eerie tenebral ostinato. Negligible liner notes.

For Titanic: Music As Heard on the Fateful Voyage, Rhino has provided a handsome booklet with period photos of the original band, the sheet music of the day, and the ship, plus the year's best acknowledgment, from (contemporary) White Star Orchestra leader Ian Whitcomb: "Not forgetting my grandfather, Jack Whitcomb, who cancelled his Titanic ticket at the last minute." (All this is in a cardboard sleeve, not a jewel case, so you may need to scrounge a bit in the CD bins.) The generous selection is mostly period pop -- "I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside," "Shine On, Harvest Moon," "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," selections from the musical comedy The Arcadians -- but there's also "The White Star March," a recitation of the Thomas Hardy poem "The Convergence of the Twain," and "Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix," from Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila. Alas, the performances range only from rote to robust; you'll have the most fun with the "third-class" presentations by the "Musical Murrays."

Music from the Titanic, with Mary Jane Newman & the Southampton Players, has the one thing the ship didn't: vocalists. Think of this as the Titanic revue. The voices are community-theater eager but the presentation is a little stodgy, and so are the arrangements on a program that's similar to the Rhino disc. "Eternal Father, Strong To Save" (a favorite hymn among the passengers) is here but, perversely, is played on the organ and not sung. The concluding "Nearer My God to Thee" is so slow it sounds self-conscious; it turns into a showy organ postlude that, in the context, borders on bad taste. The disc runs a bountiful 76 minutes, but the CD "booklet" is strictly steerage quality.

Belle of the ball in this set is the atmospheric, exuberant Titanic Serenade, a budget CD (42 minutes for about $7) from Andy Street. We start out on the dock at Southampton, with a brass band playing Gilbert & Sullivan ("When I Was a Lad," from H.M.S. Pinafore, with its ironic instruction in how to become "Ruler of the Queen's Navee" even if you've never been to sea) and "Rule Britannia" while waves lap and the horn blows and crowds cheer. There's a dreamy waltz from The Chocolate Soldier, a sweet-violined "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," a jazzy, bouncy "Spaghetti Rag," a low-whistled "Londonderry Air," a honky-tonk, tuba-heavy "Alexander's Ragtime Band." No, the original White Star Orchestra didn't boast a tuba or a honky-tonk piano -- like Jack Dawson, they've sneaked in from third class. But once you hear them, you don't want to go back to piano and strings -- you can just see Kate and Leo swinging to "Alexander." (Heck, you can see Billy Zane dancing with Kathy Bates.) "Songe d'automne" is a waltz that, with what sounds like a sax synth, glitters darkly here (think of the spectral waltz in Prokofiev's Cinderella). It's probably the "Autumn" Harold Bride heard as he floated out to sea.

Gavin Bryars has other ideas. His The Sinking of the Titanic represents what the fishy denizens of the North Atlantic might have heard as the ship sank: "The music, once generated in water, would continue to reverberate for long periods of time in the more sound-efficient medium of water." He's working from a pair of leaky assumptions: that the band continued to play as the ship went under, and that the "Autumn" Harold Bride heard was the Episcopal hymn tune "Autumn" rather than "Songe d'automne," as is now thought. (Bryars started on this project back in the '70s; there's been considerable research since.) What Sinking gives, us, then, is a Titanic scenario that never happened. Still, it's a heavenly tune, and what Gavin does with it -- the variations are layered over with survivor interviews, bagpipe sounds (there were two pipers on board, presumably in steerage), and the sounds of the iceberg impact -- is worthy of Charles Ives's treatment of "Watchmen Tell Us of the Night" in his Fourth Symphony: reverent, irreverent, haunting.

What's missing from this lot -- in case there's any label out there that doesn't have a Titanic disc and wants one -- is music from steerage (which would have been largely Irish) and the hymns -- "Lead Kindly Light," "Now the Day Is Ended," "Oh God Our Help in Ages Past" -- that the passengers sang during church services. As for the Titanic: A New Musical soundtrack, its undistinguished tunes and character stereotypes -- first-class swells, second-classers sneaking into first, steerage passengers looking to a better life in America, apprehensive ship's officers -- send it straight to the bottom. Perhaps it'll sound better in the context of the show. Meanwhile, cue the film soundtrack one last time, don your lifejacket, and raise your glass.

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