On the night of the collision, passenger Archibald Gracie recalled adjourning after dinner to the Palm Court, where he listened to the "always delightful" performance of the Titanic's White Star orchestra. To be sure, music was an important entertainment on the Titanic, whether it was the orchestra's renditions of popular songs in the ship's public areas, or the cruder but spirited bagpipe music that the Third Class passengers enjoyed on the Poop Deck. But music also figured prominently in the ship's horrific final hours, as the ship's musicians bravely sought to comfort and calm the passengers by playing for them as they made their way to the lifeboats.
The orchestra was led by Wallace Hartley, a native of Lancashire who had been introduced to music at his family's church, where he was taught to play the violin by a fellow congregant named Pickles Riley. Hartley's father wasn't keen on him becoming a professional musician, but Hartley disliked the tedium of his first job as a bank clerk, and continued playing with orchestras and performing with the Savage Club, a group of Bohemian musicians who were the house band at a stylish café in Leeds. He later was recruited by a talent agent from the Cunard Line to play on cruise ships—one of his gigs, in an odd irony, was on the Lusitania, another doomed ship that would meet its demise a few years after the Titanic. In 1912, Hartley, who was engaged to be married, had decided to give up working on ships and return to playing concerts on land. But at the last moment, he was recruited to lead the five-man orchestra on the Titanic.
According to Ian Whitcomb, a songwriter and music historian who produced a 1997 collection of songs played by the Titanic's orchestra, the repertoire included Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which was first published a year before the voyage. Other songs included Nat D. Ayer's "Oh, You Beautiful Doll," Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth's "Shine On Harvest Moon," Lewis F. Muir's "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow Waltz," and Paul Lincke's "Glow Worm." Additionally, the orchestra played classical compositions by Camille Saint-Saens and Sir Edward Edgar.
That blend of schmaltzy popular songs and highbrow music might seem a bit grating, but according to Whitcomb, Edwardians tended to be more diverse and less judgmental in their tastes than contemporary listeners. "All this music, great or humble, was popular," he told Billboard in 1997. "There was, as yet, no distinction between highbrow and lowbrow." In cities, organ grinders played Brahms and Bizet for spare change, while Edgar wrote popular waltzes as well as serious compositions.
After the Titanic collided with the iceberg, Hartley assembled his orchestra and merged it with a second trio of musicians who also performed on the ship. Though the combined group had never before played together, they played to calm the passengers in the First Class Lounge and later on the Boat Deck near the Grand Staircase. Surviving passengers recalled that the musicians played as the ship went down, even after some of them were swept off the deck into the waves. By one account, Hartley, with his violin and bow in hand, was the last man standing.
There is disagreement about what song was the orchestra's finale. Historian Walter Lord, citing Titanic survivor Harold Bride, wrote that the last song performed by the musicians before they slipped beneath the water was an Episcopal hymn, "Autumn." According to Whitcomb, however, the song actually was "Songe D'Automme (Dream of Autumn)," which mistakenly was described in newspaper reports as a hymn. The song later became a hit in Europe, and a Russian chorale version was recorded during World War II. Other survivors, however, recalled hearing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship sank. At the funeral service for Hartley, that song was performed twice, once at the chapel and again at the graveside.