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The Titanic Violin

May 13, 2013

                Wallace Hartley had become a celebrity in musical circles in Britain and had just recently landed his most important gig as a professional musician.  Now he had the chance to work as bandmaster on the maiden voyage of “the ship of dreams,” the unsinkable Titanic.  Hartley was no stranger to transatlantic crossings.  During the three years he had worked as a musician for the Cunard Line, he had crossed the Atlantic eighty times.  

Adding to his joy was the fact that Maria Robinson, the love of his life, had accepted his proposal of marriage.  Their wedding was to take place after Wallace returned from what seemed to be the opportunity of a lifetime.  

As an engagement gift, Maria had presented Wallace with a new violin.  The engraved silver marker fastened to the base plate of the instrument read, “For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement – from Maria.”  

The future held great promise for Wallace and Maria, but the events that unfolded over the next few days turned their dream into a nightmare.  

Mid-ocean the great ship sideswiped an iceberg in the cold North Atlantic. Most accounts of that ill-fated night include the story of Wallace Hartley.  In print and in film, the chaotic scene aboard the distressed vessel has become legendary. The band continued to play, calming the frightened passengers. Most famously, Hartley led “Nearer My God to Thee” as his swan song.  In both the 1958 and 1997 movie versions, the musicians played even as icy waters swept over the deck of the historic ocean liner.  

Christopher Ward tells the story of Hartley and the band in his book And the Band Played On.  According to Ward, his grandfather Jock Hume, Nobby Clarke, and Hartley were found together ten days after the Titanic sank. Still wearing their lifejackets, they were encased in ice.

Approximately 1500 people perished in the frigid waves.  The Canadian coast guard, stationed in Nova Scotia, recovered some of the bodies including that of Wallace Hartley.  

The violin was not originally mentioned among Hartley’s possessions.  However, a transcript of a telegram was found in a diary belonging to Hartley’s fiancée, Maria.  The message, sent soon after the sinking of the Titanic, was addressed to the provincial secretary of Nova Scotia, expressing gratitude that the violin had been found and returned to her.

Eyewitness accounts at the time Hartley’s body was recovered indicate the instrument was inside a brown valise engraved with the initials of Wallace Hartley, W.H.H..  According to those reports the valise was strapped around his body above his lifejacket. The instrument had been cushioned with clothing.  Apparently Hartley felt Maria’s gift would fare better in the heavier luggage than in its original case.  Once the violin was returned to Maria, it was not heard of again for more than ninety years.

In 2006, a man cleaning in his deceased mother’s attic discovered a valise with the initials W.H.H.  Inside was an old fiddle. Realizing from the silver plate that the antique instrument had a story, he took it to auctioneers Henry Aldridge & Son, specialists in Titanic memorabilia.  The violin created great excitement, but naysayers soon claimed that the violin must be a fake.  Henry Aldridge & Son commissioned forensic experts to examine and authenticate the instrument, a seven-year task that was painstaking and very expensive.  The process confirmed that the old violin was the actual instrument Hartley played.

The violin is in remarkable condition considering it remained in seawater for ten days following the disaster.  Forensic analysis reveals microscopic signs of saltwater corrosion on the rosewood neck and on the screws attaching the silver plate.  Two long vertical cracks in the body are the most obvious evidence of damage.  

Specialists at Henry Aldridge & Son traced the story of the violin’s journey.  Maria Robinson had presented the fiddle as an engagement gift to Wallace two years before the voyage of the Titanic.  Once the violin was returned to her, she cherished it as a keepsake of her lost love.  Maria never married. She died in 1939.  

Maria’s sister, Margaret, found the luggage labeled with Hartley’s initials and the violin inside.  Seeing the damage to the instrument, she gave it to the Salvation Army.  Major Renwick, in turn, gave the old valise and violin to an unnamed music teacher who was also a member of the Salvation Army Band.  When she died, her son discovered the valise, the violin, and a letter indicating that Major Renwick thought she could use the instrument.  The violin, however, had been unplayable because of its condition.  The teacher’s son, who wishes to remain anonymous, contacted the specialists.   

Alan Aldridge commented that a violin of this vintage and condition would be worth hardly $20, but he quickly added, “This is the Holy Grail.”  

The romantic and remarkable story behind the violin’s survival, the confirmed stories of Wallace Hartley leading the band to the tragic end, and the careful documentation by Henry Aldridge & Son make it worth far more.  

Philadelphia lawyer and a leading Titanic expert, Craig Sopin owns one of the world’s largest collections of Titanic memorabilia.  Sopin estimates the value of the violin to be in seven figures.  He notes that the violin is a significant part of the Titanic story.

The anonymous owner, interested in selling the violin, wants as many people as possible to view the relic.  The instrument is currently on display in Belfast, Ireland, less than a mile from the shipyard where the Titanic was built.  

The story of the famous fiddle reminds me of lines from the poem “The Touch of the Master’s Hand,” by Myra Brooks Welch:

’Twas battered and scarred and the auctioneer
Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But he held it up with a smile.

“What am I bid, good folk?” he cried.
“Who’ll start the bidding for me?
A dollar, a dollar…now two…only two…
Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?

“Three dollars once, three dollars twice,
Going for three”…but no!
From the room far back a gray-haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow.

Then wiping the dust from the old violin
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet,
As sweet as an angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said, “What am I bid for the old violin?”
As he held it up with the bow.

“A thousand dollars…and who’ll make it two?
Two…two thousand, and who’ll make it three?
Three thousand once and three thousand twice…
Three thousand and gone!” said he.

The people cheered, but some exclaimed
“We do not quite understand…
What changed it’s worth?” and the answer came:
“ ’Twas the touch of the master’s hand.”

 

            A gift by Maria to her fiancé, Wallace Hartley, and the touch of his courageous hand greatly increase the value of the violin that survived the sinking of the Titanic.

               
Kirk H. Neely
© May 2013

 

 

 

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