100 years ago tonight, the RMS Titanic struck its fatal iceberg. The ship sank at 2:20 the next morning, and since about that time, the Titanic has captured the popular imagination. The first film version of the tragedy came out just 29 days later. Called Saved From the Titanic, the silent film starred an actual survivor who wore the same clothes she had on when she stepped into the first lifeboat. Multiple films have been made about the doomed steamer since then. The most popular, of course, was James Cameron’s 1997 version.
1,514 people died that night, and their stories have been told over the years. Some have become legendary. Tales of Molly Brown’s courageous lifeboat takeover in the face of a stunned, ineffective officer duel with stories about the cruise line’s director, J. Bruce Ismay, making a cowardly escape while over 100 women and children remained on board.
In my mind, one of the bravest people on the ship was Wallace Hartley. Hartley was the leader of the ship’s storied orchestra, famous for continuing to play as the ship went down. The band’s musical demise has become a metaphor for ignoring your problems, but Hartley and his musicians deserve better than that.
The musicians aboard the Titanic were not employees of the cruise line. They were contractors. When requested to play in order to calm the passengers and prevent panic, they were under no obligation to do so. They were passengers, albeit men, who had just as much right to seek their own survival instead of facing their certain doom while helping the crew in the evacuation.
But Hartley chose to stay. As instructed, he and his band played lively, happy tunes to keep the mood of the escaping passengers as light as possible. He faced his own death with honor, doing what he could to help others remain peaceful.
Hartley (obviously) was not a Pagan. He was a Methodist, and a devout one. But he understood the power of music to change consciousness, and he used his talents to help his fellow doomed passengers. It was his life’s work, and he bravely fulfilled his mission even to the moment of his death.
In the 100 years since the sinking, music has become a beloved method used by Pagans to alter their consciousness during ritual. Wiccans recite the charge of the Goddess, urging their covens to “Dance, sing, feast, make music and love,” and of course chanting is a vital part of many rituals. I don’t know a lot about ADF rituals, but the one I attended went beyond chants. The leader sang to introduce each section of the ritual, his beautiful voice creating seamless transitions. Gerald Gardner listed “chants,” “runes,” and “dance,” as methods of consciousness changing. In The Gates of Witchcraft, Christopher Penczak specifically includes music as one of the 12 ways to alter your consciousness.
Music has a long history of mediating our moods. It has power. People of all faiths use music to pump them up, console them, calm them down, and worship. As Pagans many of us use it consciously for this purpose. As a professional musician, Hartley did the same. I respect that. We also value honor and courage. While Hartley’s faith was different from mine (heck, mine didn’t even exist yet), I still honor his resolve in the face of what must have been paralyzing fear and his use of the ancient art of music to help calm fears.
The popular legend is that the musicians switched musical styles as the end approached. As the waters rose, the band is said to have changed from happy dance tunes to Christian hymns. The final song they played is reputed to have been “Nearer, my God, to Thee.” That may or may not be true as some eyewitness reports conflict with this tale, and an earlier ship is known to have gone down playing that hymn. However, Wallace Hartley was known to have liked the song and specifically wanted it played at his funeral. In honor of the hundredth anniversary of his passing, and in the spirit of interfaith peace across the veil, I present his favorite hymn, from 1958′s A Night to Remember:
Blessed be, Wallace Hartley, and may you be nearer to your god.