And the band played on...

But what was the tune the band struck up as the ship went down? Few who have seen Roy Ward Baker's 1958 film of the Titanic's doom, A Night to Remember, will forget the scene. As panic sweeps the decks, real men rush about shouting "Women and children first!" while wimps head lemming- like for the stern. Wallace Hartley, leader of the ship's band, puts down his fiddle. "It's the end, boys," he stoically observes. "We've done our duty. We can go now."

But then, as his men begin to drift away, they hear a single plaintive violin. One by one, they resume their places by their leader's side. The camera cuts to the faces of women and children in the lifeboats, upturned in awe as the cellist gently starts to sing "Nearer, my God, to thee." Seconds later, the ship goes down.

It's a touching scene, repeated in James Cameron's new movie. Yet, while Sarah Flower Adams's hymn soon became identified with the Titanic tragedy - not least through its use in a cantata by the German harmonium maestro, Siegfried Karg-Elert, which Edward Elgar conducted at a Royal Albert Hall memorial concert a month after the tragedy - it was certainly not the last tune heard on board.

"I guess all of the band went down," recalled junior wireless officer Harold Bride in the New York Times four days after the disaster. "They were playing 'Autumn'... How they ever did it I cannot imagine."

As Gavin Bryars, composer of The Sinking of the Titanic, points out, the words to the Episcopal hymn "Autumn" - "See the leaves about us falling" - are less than ideally appropriate. No doubt Bride had heard the tune correctly, but was he misheard by the Times reporter? Might he not, as has been suggested, have meant "Aughton" instead? Its words - "And when my task on earth is done... E'en death's cold wave I will not flee" - seem more fit. Then again, Hartley's band included in its repertoire a "Songe d'Automne" by Archibald Joyce, the "English Waltz King". So, soupy waltz or revivalist hymn? It must remain a secret of the deep.

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