The musicians on the RMS Titanic had gained such celebrity, even before James Cameron's film of the night that great ship went down, that it's bit surprising how little attention has been paid to who they were and what they played. Even Cameron's elaborately detailed treatment remained mostly in the realm of the speculative when it came to the music. This superb release by American researcher and keyboardist Ian Whitcomb is not an attempt at slavish reconstruction; Whitcomb plays a ukulele and a mandolin, both common instruments at the time but neither apparently part of the original White Star Orchestra although both are reasonable choices. The disc is, rather, a thoroughly researched (a bibliography is included) and abundantly illustrated evocation of the music heard on board the Titanic, including a chronological group of descriptions and quotations leading up to the famed episode in which the musicians continued playing even after it became clear that the ship was doomed. The first revelation comes in the opening piece, The White Star March, where listeners may be confused to hear an electronic sound that seems to signal a modern interpretation. But the music of the Titanic was in this respect as close to state-of-the-art as the rest of the ship; the electric organ was by no means a common instrument at the time, but the Titanic featured a new Aeolian model. Along with all the highly readable prose (and poetry: Thomas Hardy's elegy on the Titanic's sinking is included) and a normal tracklist, the music is broken down by type and by part of the ship: the third-class passengers heard different music from the rest of the ship, with American vaudeville and British music hall tunes replacing the light classical music, marches, and a few discreet ragtime hits (like Alexander's Ragtime Band) offered for Rose DeWitt Bukater and her companions. Best of all, Whitcomb has his musicians play just the slightest bit tentatively in ragtime and other syncopated material, as if the music was new to them (which it indeed would have been), but nevertheless necessary from the point of view of the young dancers on board. Full of nicely executed detail, this is an essential purchase for anyone interested in the lore of the greatest of all maritime disasters.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
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