Walking along the subway near South Kensington tube this afternoon, I heard a busking violinist play the Celine Dion hit ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from the 1997 film, Titanic. The choice of repertoire was very appropriate; it has recently been announced that a violin thought to belong to Wallace Hartley, band leader on the ill-fated ship, has been authenticated. Not that he would have been playing that song in 1912.
The story of Hartley’s band playing till the end has often been told. What intrigues me are conflicting reports: newspapers of 1912 reported that the violin, in a suitcase, was discovered strapped to his body, found some days after the ship sank. Other reports state that the inventory of his belongings, made after the discovery of the body, does not mention the violin. The violin authenticated as Hartley’s bears corrosion marks indicative of immersion in salt water.
If this violin was on the ship, the image of Hartley finishing the final piece, putting his violin in the suitcase, and strapping the case to his body leaving his hands free to cope as best he could with the shipwreck, is remarkable. Here was a man facing likely death, fulfilling his professional obligations in extraordinary circumstances. But was he also looking at the slim chance of survival, and looking with hope towards a future, equipped with the instrument with which he made his living.
The violin has suffered damage, but I hope that someone, somewhere, restrings it and plays ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ in memory of Wallace Hartley and the brave musicians who perished with him. RIP.