Tag Archive | Nearer My God to Thee

Nearer, My God, To Thee, Last Song Played As the Titanic Sinks

Nearer, My God, To Thee is commonly believed to be the last song the Titanic played as the ship sank.

The popular hymn was written by Sarah Flower Adams and is loosely based on Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:11-19. This hymn is considered by hymnology students to be the finest hymn ever written by a woman composer.

Titanic In Dock

Sarah was born in Harlow, England on February 22, 185. Her father, Benjamin Flower, was a newspaper editor and man of prominence. Sarah was active on the stage in her younger days. She won rave reviews portraying Lady MacBeth in London. She worked closely with her sister, Eliza Flower, who was an accomplished musician. Sarah married railway engineer, William Bridges Adams, in 1834. The couple lived in Loughton, Essex, England, where a blue plaque is now dedicated to the public.

Sarah and Eliza worked created many hymns with William Johnson Fox for his hymnal “Collection Hymns and Anthems”. It is said Sarah wrote quickly and editors found little to change, many of her songs were praising God. Her longest work is “Vivia Perpetua, A Dramatic Poem” written in 1841. While working together Rev. Fox said he wished he could find a song to conclude his sermon on Jacob and Esau. Eliza recommended her sister write the hymn. Sarah spent the next week in prayer and studying the scriptures. The song was published in a 1841 hymnal under the title “Hymns and Anthems.” Sarah and Eliza were raised in the Unitarian Church, but it’s possible Sarah may have converted to the Baptist Faith shortly before her death.

Sarah Adams

Sarah faithfully cared for her sister when she contracted tuberculosis. Eliza died in 1846, but Sarah had developed the consumption by this time. She died on Aug 14, 1848 at the age of forty-three and is buried at the church in Harlow.

The words Sarah wrote are associated with three different tunes. In the United Kingdom, it is usually sung to a tune known as “Horbury.” This tune was written in 1841 by John Bacchus Dykes.

The tune “Propior Deo” was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. This tune is popular in British Methodist traditions.

Lowell Mason, who is known as writing over 1600 tunes such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, “Joy to the World!” and “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”, wedded the lyrics to Sarah’s song with his tune, “Bethany.” Although the lyrics were introduced in 1844, it was after this marriage that the song became popular. This version is the most popular and well known of the three.

Nearer, My God, To Thee” has proven its popularity through the ages.

Titanic, a tragedy

The Confederate army band played this song as the survivors of the disastrous Pickett’s Charge (in the Battle of Gettysburg) returned from their failed infantry assault.

The Rough Riders sang the hymn at the burial of their slain comrades after the Battle of Las Guasima.

Legend says the words of this hymn were the dying words of President William McKinley after his assassination in 1901. The hymn was also played at President William McKinley, President James Garfield and President Gerald Ford’s funerals.

Wallace Hartley, the Titanic’s band leader, was known to like this song and request that the hymn be played at his funeral. Survivor accounts differ among which version or melody was played. Friends of Hartley recounted after the sinking, that he had said if he was ever on a sinking ship he would play Nearer, My God, To Thee.

For more on the Titanic

Autumn, heard the night of Titanic’s Sinking

There are conflicting reports among survivors regarding the last song the Band played as the Titanic was sinking. We know it was either “Autumn” or “Nearer My God to Thee.”

We will discuss the later song next time. Let’s take a look at “Autumn”. I’m familiar with this legend, but knew nothing about the song.


The belief that the song was “Autumn” comes from Harold Bride, the Titanic’s junior wireless operator. This is a brief part of his testimony: “From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a rag-time tune, I don’t know what. Then there was “Autumn”…The big wave carried the boat off. I had hold of an oarlock, and I went off with it…The ship was gradually turning on her nose—just like a duck does that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind—to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all the band went down. They were playing “Autumn” then…The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it while still we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing “Autumn.” How they ever did I cannot imagine.”

So what is this song “Autumn” that he referred to? We’re not sure! By that I mean it could have been two very different songs. Francois Barthelemon wrote a hymn tune titled “Autumn”. The commonly held belief is McBride was referring to “Songe d’Automne”.

Titanic Graves

The hymn, “Autumn” by Barthelemon is the version The Times assumed McBride was referring to at the time. However, this song was not very popular in British society at the time of the Titanic sinking. This tune was written in 1785. Barthelemon was a French born musician who was an associate of Franz Haydn. He wrote hymns, operas, and symphonies among other types of musical composition.

Song d’Automne” was a waltz written by Archibald Joyce in 1908, and this popular song is known to be in the White Star Line musical book. He was an English composer of popular music and known as the “English Waltz King”. This waltz was a hit in 1912 society and often referred to as “Autumn.” Many of the passengers that survived recounted hearing this song played a number of times throughout the voyage. Sometimes you’ll also find the piece referred to as “Dream of Autumn.”

The contemporary belief is that Harold McBride was referring to “Song d’Automne” but we’ll never know for sure. Based on the testimony of survivor, Algernon Barkworth, who also heard this song, the belief is upon the completion of this waltz, the band dispersed and moved to the safety of the stern, where they again resumed their playing.

Heroes: The Titanic Band

“They kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had power to drown them into silence. The band was playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close.” -CHARLOTTE COLLYER, TITANIC SURVIVOR

We have all heard the stories of how the Titanic orchestra played until the ship went under. Still…little is known about these brave men.

A little bit about the band to start with. The band played for the First and Second Class passengers. The White Star Line provided a song book for the musicians. They were expected to memorize all of the songs and play for the passengers upon request. Third class passengers brought their own instruments and provided their own entertainment.

Who were these men?

Wallace Henry Hartley, Titanic’s bandleader, was born in Colne, Lancashire, England in 1878. He was introduced to music at an early age by his choirmaster father. He introduced the congregation of his church to the hymn “Nearer, My God, To Thee.” He worked for a bank for a short time before joining Huddersfield Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1903 he joined the Bridlington Municipal Orchestra and stayed there for six years. In 1909 he joined the Cunard Line and served on their liners RMS Lucania, RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania. During his stint with Cunard, the agency C.W. & F.N. Black, took over to supply musicians for the Cunard and White Star Lines. This bumped Harley and the other musicians up from crew to second class passengers. When he was assigned to lead the band on the new RMS Titanic, Hartley was hesitant to leave his new fiancée, Maria Robinson. He decided the opportunity and contacts was too great an opportunity to pass on. Hartley’s body was found two weeks after the sinking. He is buried in Colne, England and a huge memorial stands there in his honor. Wallace Hartley

Theodore Ronald Brailey was born in 1887 in Essex, England. He was the pianist on the ship. He served for the Royal Lancashire Fusiliers regiment from 1902-1907 in Barbados. In 1911 and early 1912 he played on the RMS Saxonia, and RMS Carpathia. He was 24 at his death and his body was never recovered.

French cellist, Roger Marie Bricoux, was born in 1891 in rue de Donzy, Cosne-sur-Loire, France. His father was a musician and the family moved to Monaco when he was a young boy. He learned music in the Italian Catholic Church and Paris Conservatory and won a prize at the Conservatory of Bologna for musical ability. He served with Theodore Brailey on the RMS Carpathia. He was the only French musician on the Titanic. His twenty year old body was never found. France did not declare him legally deceased until the year 2000.

John Law Hume, violinist, was born in Dumfries, Scotland in 1890. He was better known by his nickname, Jock. He had a good reputation as a musician and had previous been on at least five other ships. He died at the age of 21 and his body was recovered. He was buried in Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. A memorial was erected for him in his hometown of Dumfries. He had no idea that his fiancée was pregnant with his child {a daughter} when he died. After the sinking his father was sent a bill from C.W. & F.N. Black for the uniform. He never paid the fine.

The Titanic Band

Georges Alexandre Krins was born in Paris, France in 1889 and was the Titanic’s violinist. In Belgium, he won first prizes and was held in high distinction as a violinist. After a number of other positions, he played at London’s Ritz Hotel for two years before joining the Titanic. He was the leader of the trio that played in the A la Carte restaurant. He was 23 years old when he died and his body was not recovered.

John Frederick Preston Clarke played the bass violin and viola. He was from Liverpool. He was 35 when he perished and his body was picked up and buried at Halifax Nova Scotia.

Percy Cornelius Taylor played the piano and cello on board ship. He was from London and his body was not found.
Titanic Musicians Memorial

John Wesley Woodward was born in England in 1879 and played the cello. He had been playing music on White Star Line ships since 1909 and was on Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, when she collided in 1911 with the HMS Hawke. He was 32 years of age when he died.

Only the bodies of Wallace Hartley, John Law Hume and John Frederick Preston Clarke were recovered and identified. They were buried in the different cemeteries for Titanic victims. Wallace Hartley’s funeral was on the level of a State Funeral. Monuments have been erected and dedicated to several of these brave heroes.

More on songs played on the Titanic
More about Music on the Titanic