Friday, 6 January 2012

Did Titanic's bands share sheet music?

It has been said that Titanic's five-piece band and trio had separate libraries of music. There has always been confusion as to what "separate libraries" could mean. Did this mean the bands played from two different lists of music (different titles)? And if so, how could they have performed together on the night of the sinking? This will be answered in three parts.

Yes, it can be believed that the five-piece band and the trio played from separate libraries. The differences in their instrumentation meant they needed separate libraries of music.

This discussion begins with an understanding of music arrangements. The quintet consisted of a piano and four stringed instruments. Everywhere the quintet performed they had access to a piano, so their printed arrangements were unquestionably for this kind of instrumentation.

Cabinet for sheet music storage, in the venue where the five-piece band performed.
Taken aboard Olympic

There was no piano installed in the trio’s performance venue, the reception room outside the à la carte Restaurant and Cafe Parisien. In the absence of a piano this small ensemble would have been a string trio. The standard trio without piano has two violins and a cello.

Structurally, the person who arranged the music for each ensemble would have adjusted the musical elements specifically for each grouping of instruments. A complete music score for the quintet would have had six staves (counting two for the piano), and would have looked something like this on paper:

Violin (treble staff)
Viola or Second Violin (alto or treble staff, respectively)
Cello (bass staff, occasionally alto or treble in the upper registers)
Double bass (bass staff, sounds an octave lower than written)
Piano (grand staff, treble and bass clefs)

For the string trio there would have been three staves, and music would have looked like this in complete score:

Violin (treble staff)
Violin (treble staff)
Cello (bass staff, occasionally alto or treble in the upper ranges)

It is unlikely the musicians on the Titanic had complete scores as outlined above, so I use them simply to illustrate the construction of the music. The libraries on the Titanic likely contained only the parts, one instrument per sheet.

Technically, the trio could have tried to play the sheets intended for the quintet, but the sound would have been missing entire lines of music, entire parts of harmony or bass. For example, if an arrangement ever contained a section where the piano played alone, the trio would have had an extended silence in the music. Likewise, the all-important bass line, which is customarily played by the double bass, would have been missing had the trio played the quintet's music.

So, yes, both ensembles would have had access to their own stash of sheet music, separate libraries if you will. The number and nature of instruments present made it necessary to provide each band with customized non-exchangeable print arrangements.

Related Posts
What is a 'palm court' musician?
Where did Titanic's band play during the sinking?
Did Titanic's band play music by memory?

2 comments:

  1. Is it possible to get these score arrangements ?

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    1. I am unsure as to whether the original arrangements from the agency C. W. & F. N. Black (used on White Star Line ships) are available anywhere. It is possible that the Black brothers, themselves, wrote the arrangements.

      I do know someone who has arranged some of Titanic's music for piano quintet, if you are interested. His name is Ian Bent.

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