Musical Homages to the Titanic: Seven Melodic Tributes

Byvu lita

Jun 20, 2023

How composers have memorialised the events of 15 April 1912.

Whether intended as memorial pieces, depictions of the tragedy, or something more abstract, the sinking of the Titanic has moved a good few composers to put pen to paper.

First up, in 1912 itself, came Nielsen’s Paraphrase on ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, in which a restrained rendition of the ‘Bethany’ setting of the hymn is interrupted by a terrifying crash on the percussion as the collision takes place.

The following year, French composer Joseph Bonnet published his In Memoriam Titanic for organ – similarly, Bonnet took ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ as his starting point, but in this case opted for the ‘Horbury’ setting.

Another tune believed to have been played during the fateful event, the hymn tune ‘Autumn’, is at the heart of Gavin Bryars’s haunting The Sinking of the Titanic of 1969. ‘My initial speculations centred on what happens to music as it is played in water,’ wrote Bryars. ‘On a purely physical level, of course, it simply stops… On a poetic level, however, the music, once generated in water, would continue to reverberate for long periods of time.’

No hymns are heard in Titanic 10th-15th April 1912, Ronan Magill’s large-scale work for solo piano (1988), though a waltz in the third movement pays homage to the musicians lost on the ship.

The disaster’s centenary brought about new Titanic-related works. In 2010, David Bedford conducted his The Wreck of the Titanic in which a chamber group portrays the ship’s band against the backdrop of a looming iceberg in the form of a chorus and symphony orchestra.

In 2012 Julian Philips’s Body of Water was premiered at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street. That same year, at the St Endellion Easter Festival, James Burton’s The Convergence of the Twain was premiered. This work for baritone, choir and orchestra sets Thomas Hardy’s acerbic poem about the disaster.

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