Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Nearer My God to Thee

In the tumult and the shouting as the RMS Titanic was sinking on 15 April 1912, the panic stricken passengers could hear the soothing strains of a hymn. When the shocking realization dawned that the majestic ship would go down, the band leader Wallace Henry Hartley (1878-1912) and his men switched over to a melody that was a prayer for the 1500 odd people who drowned and the 700 plus who survived.

The song was “Nearer My God to Thee.” That was not the first time that the song was connected to a shipwreck. The passengers and the crew had sung the it when SS Valencia sank off the Canadian coast six years earlier.

There is a view that the last tune played by the Titanic band was either an Episcopalian hymn “Autumn” or a waltz, “Songe d’Automne.” But most researchers seem to discard this theory. Hartley had reportedly said once that if ever the ship on which he was sailing sank, he would sing “Nearer My God to Thee”. Quite appropriate too:

There let the way appear steps unto heav'n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv'n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee! 

“Nearer My God To Thee” is a cherished and treasured hymn like Amazing Grace. It was written by a British lady, Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848). She was keen on an acting career, and literary minded as well. She did perform as Lady Macbeth in a London play but ill health put an end to her acting ambitions.

When Sarah wrote the all time favourite hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” is not precisely known.  She belonged to the congregation of Reverend William Johnson Fox and perhaps through his connection it was published by C. Fox in London in 1841 in “Hymns of Anthems”. That was about eight years before the poetess died. Sarah’s version of “Nearer My God to Thee” had only five stanzas. But one more was added later by Ed­ward H. Bick­er­steth, Jr.

It is said that Sarah’s inspiration to create the beautiful song was Jacob’s dream in Genesis Chapter 28:

“Nearer My God to Thee” was first set to music by Sarah’s sister Eliza. New versions came later. But it was the American ‘Bethany’ melody by Lowell Mason (1856) that made the hymn universally popular. However, many British prefer the ‘Horbury’ tune. There is a third one which some believe was played by the Titanic band – ‘Propior Deo’. It was possible that British and American passengers could better recognize “Nearer My God to Thee” in this mode.

The universality of the hymn is interesting. Sarah belonged to the Unitarian congregation. This sect believes that there is only one God and do not accept the concept of Trinity. Yet, the Unitarian hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”, gained acceptance by the Methodists, Protestants, Catholics and in fact by all Christian denominations.

The Titanic certainly added to the appeal of the song in the 20th century. The entire band of eight played on till the end and went down with the ship. Just before death overtook him, Hartley had placed his violin inside its case which was strapped on to his body. When his corpse was found the violin was returned to his fiancée Maria Robertson. She had bought it for 40 pounds in 1910 and gifted it to Hartley on the occasion of their engagement.

Maria never married. When she died in 1939, her sister donated the instrument to the Salvation Army. It was no longer a treasure, as it had been to Maria and nobody bothered. It changed hands a few times.

But the violin re-emerged in an attic in North Yorkshire in 2006. A great deal of investigation went into its authenticity. Finally, the experts agreed that it was the genuine Hartley “Nearer My God to Thee” violin of the Titanic.

The violin was auctioned last week in Dewsburry and went for a million pounds. According to one calculation the 40 pounds which was the original price of the instrument in 1910 would today be the equivalent of £2,630.

And here is the last song played on the million pound instrument:

Titanic painting by Willy Stöwery.
Jacob's Dream is from the web. Painter's name not known.
Photo  of Titanic Band is from Wikipedia.
Wallace Hartley  is at the top, center.


Denis Srampickal said...

Mesmerizing composition ! The tune has been adopted in Malayalam devotional songs as well in Ninnoden Daivame sung by Kester.

Ankita said...

thanks for this wonderful info! loved this post :)