I attended a remarkable musical event this past weekend, performed by the Sacramento-area Samantics, ordinarily a 30-voice mixed chorus. It was billed as a cabaret-style tribute to the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and described as "eight singers, music heard aboard the Titanic, accounts of survivors in their own words, and songs written in honor of those lost at sea."
Beginning with a reflective piano tribute to the “Titanic’s heroes” that was published in 1913, this program gave insights into the experience of the Titanic – before, during, and after its sinking. The selection of songs conveyed the spirit of the era and public reactions to the tragedy. And between most songs were the personal perspectives of passengers – brief excerpts from their reminiscences that were not just read, but acted by the individual performers.
The song selection was inspired. Artistic Director Sam Schieber writes in his introduction: “Gleaning titles from books, library catalogs, other collectors and auction websites, I have compiled an unofficial (and no doubt incomplete) tally of 151 songs written about the Titanic – almost all of which were published in 1912! From that list I have been able to collect 42 songs, of which you will hear 20 (or parts thereof) at this performance.” Apart from songs memorializing the Titanic, there are songs that were popular on board, both in First Class and in Third Class – some wonderfully funny. And of course there were hymns: “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” and “Nearer, My God, To Thee” in an intriguing setting unfamiliar to modern ears. This music was presented most often as solos, but there were a number of choral settings, and – most wonderfully – several audience sing-alongs, with music printed in the program.
In telling the story of normal shipboard life and then reactions to the emergency, the program eventually focused, through contemporary music, on those who have since been recognized as the heroes of the incident in one way or another: the Astors, Benjamin Guggenheim, the crew, and the band. A piece honoring Isidor and Ida Strauss was, appropriately, sung in Hebrew.
Not all of this was somber. For example, the work of the band was illustrated with a rendition of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and the program ended with the rousing “Be British!” The sense one got in the audience was that the Titanic’s final hours were characterized by a sense of duty, honor, and loyalty – to one’s spouse, to one’s comrades, and to the ship one had built or maintained. And an audience member could see that, for most of the passengers, staff, and crew, this was indeed their finest hour.
More than a musical performance, this event was living history. Without being maudlin, it conveyed a respect for those affected by this tragedy and gave a unique perspective of the event that goes beyond those offered by movies, books or TV specials. The printed, 20-page program, was itself a collector’s item, with numerous images of people and the decorative covers of this music, some of which probably hasn’t been performed publicly for 100 years.
For anyone with a heart and with the ability to empathize, this program was an emotional experience. It was the fruit of an extraordinary research project on the part of Sam Schieber, who arranged, selected, and knit these elements into an artistic whole. All of Sam’s programs are entertaining products of a dedicated musicologist, who is able time and again to discover wonderful gems from the past and weave them into a unique musical experience. This program, especially, is one that deserves the attention of a much wider audience, and I hope that it will somehow be offered again before the interest in the Titanic fades. It is simultaneously a memorial to a great tragedy and a celebration of the human spirit that deserves to be told and retold.