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Musicians were maltreated on the Titanic, and after

Amid the media hubbub about a violin that may, or may not, have been played on the tragic ship, little has been written about the conditions that musicians endured on board, and the miserable treatment of their families after the ship went down.

Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, introduces her research in a post to Slipped Disc:

Holly-Mulcahy-071-150x150Photo: Bo Huang.

Have a look at some of the facts about the musicians that actually add more poignancy to the violin than what the movies and myth portray:

1. Musicians were listed as second class passengers so that White Star Lines could avoid paying union rate. They were actually given rooms next to the potato peeler/washer.

2. Some deceased musicians’ families were billed for the uniforms lost at sea.

3. Upon trying to collect death benefits, the grieving families were told by the hiring talent agency that since they were listed as 2nd class, White Star was to pay benefits. White Star said, no way, they were employees of the C.W. and F.M. Black talent agency, they ought to pay the death benefits.

The violin has become a symbol of a heroic moment; a group of musicians trying to calm panicking people facing death. Their heroic act was also noted by a few survivors as a bad idea and they criticized the musicians for creating a false sense of security, robbing time from people who didn’t digest the gravity of the situation until it was too late.

I did extensive research on this a number of years ago and wrote this:



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  1. Were they treated worse than other ship’s employees?

  2. Thanks Norm, to clarify, I’m on trial for the concertmaster position of the Chattanooga Symphony, Columbus Symphony (OH), and Orchestra Iowa. I will be concertmaster this week in Columbus for their Rite of Spring concert, however!

    These RMS Titanic musicians’ stories are the things that fall between the cracks of an otherwise romantic story.

    • Were the musicians treated worse than were other ship’s employees?

      • If you take into account they were denied death benefits that other ship employees, like the potato washer or engine room worker, would have received, then yes. Add to that, they were classified as second class passengers but required to stay in crew cabins and it was only after the story of the musicians being denied their benefits (along with the additional injustices) that money was raised, by fellow musicians, for the families of the victims.

  3. José Bergher says:

    Excellent article by Holly Mulcahy.
    To add to the literature about the Titanic musicians, may I recommend “The Band that Played On,” by Steve Turner, published in 2011 by Thomas Nelson.

  4. John Parfrey says:

    Interesting perspective. Like Jeffrey Salzberg, I wonder if this wasn’t just par for the course in that era. Was it possible that musicians on a luxury liner were regarded in about the same way as busboys and other lower level labor?

    David Berkowitz’s book “Behind the Gold Curtain: Fifty Years in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra” describes some really wretched working conditions at the Met which existed well into the modern era of that company. An apples and oranges comparison, perhaps, but consider that these were musicians who were much more critical to the enterprise, and still they were treated badly. (Berkowitz’s book is interesting from a labor perspective inasmuch as he was involved with improving benefits for Met orchestra musicians over the years, both through the union and through collective efforts in the early years when union protections were far more limited.)

    • A salutary tale. It is often a very difficult choice between playing for little money and not playing at all. I was recently asked to play for absolutely no fee for performances where tickets cost £95 each.

      • If it’s any consolation (and it probably isn’t), as poorly as musicians are often treated, they have far better protections — here in the US, at least — than do the members of any other performing arts unions.

  5. mezzodiva54 says:

    Shining examples above of what unionizing has done to raise and protect the treatment and compensation of musicians since the “good old days”. And yet, over on the SFSO-on-strike article, we continue to have these whinging comments from the supporters of management over the musicians. Plus ca change…

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