Minnesota Public Radio
MPR Home | News | Music | Radio Listening | Events | Your Voice | About US | Support Us | Help
Music Search Music:

It Was Sad When the Great Ship Went Down

Original sheet music for the 1912 song "The Band Played Nearer My God to Thee as the Ship Went Down." Click image for larger view.
It is one of the great received images of the twentieth century: As the stricken Titanic slips into the ocean, Wallace Hartley and his musicians remain steadfast at their posts, playing "Nearer, My God, to Thee."

Or else they play it, but with an unfamiliar melody. Or they play a different hymn. Or the popular song "Autumn," or ragtime. (There is a whole sub-division of Titanic-ology devoted to this question.)

What is certain is that music has become an indispensable part of the Titanic myth. With the big exhibit in St. Paul, thousands of Minnesotans are going to become Titanic buffs, if only temporarily, and we submit five very diverse examples of how musicians have responded to the story of the disaster.

Sigfrid Karg-Elert: Improvisation
Karg-Elert was an early 20th-century German composer who wrote several pieces about the Titanic sinking, including this one for organ. He leaves no doubt about his views on the Last Song Debate, putting the familiar "Nearer, My God, to Thee" front and center.

Gavin Bryars: The Sinking of the Titanic.
In this piece, and his other great success, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Gavin Bryars proves that nothing is off-limits to the avant-garde not even sentiment.

Listen to an excerpt in RealAudio

"The Titanic"
Dozens of songs have been written about the disaster; this is the one with the most staying power. By rights, any song with lines like "It was sad when the great ship went down" and "Little children lost their lives" should be a solemn dirge, sung in hushed, reverent tones. As generations of summer campers know, the opposite is the case.

James Horner: Titanic soundtrack.
Each generation has to re-interpret the past in its own wayin the case of James Horner's Oscar-winning soundtrack, that means a Titanic voyage with synthesizers and Celine Dion.

Leadbelly: "The Titanic"
One of many Titanic songs and verses from African-American tradition: "The black man ought to shout for joy/Never lost a girl or either a boy."

Spider John Keorner: "Raised by Humans."
Minnesota singer Spider John Koerner sums it up with his line, "It was sad when that great ship went down."

Listen to an excerpt in RealAudio

Photo Credits:
"The Band Played Nearer My God to Thee as the Ship Went Down"
Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

The Titanic
Quarrie Corporation World Book Encyclopedia, The - T 1943


Minnesota Public Radio