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Titanic bandleader's violin auctioned for $1.45 million
Within hours of the Titanic disaster a little over a century ago, members of the ship's orchestra were hailed as heroes. The eight men had continued playing to the very end. Bandleader Wallace Henry Hartley was the most famous of them. Days after the sinking, his body and violin were found floating in the icy North Atlantic. The violin had been a gift from his fiancée Maria.
On Saturday, Hartley's violin sold in a London auction for $1.45 million. It was the highest price ever paid for a Titanic artifact, its value having been driven up because Titanic aficionados saw it as symbol of Hartley's courage, duty, and religious faith.
There were, to be sure, many examples of bravery among the Titanic's crew and passengers, including the rich and famous. Benjamin Guggenheim, 46, the scion of the Guggenheim fortune, was overhead to say that he and other social elites had "dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."
"Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, tell her I played the game out straight to the end," he said in a note passed along to a survivor. "No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward."
Yet it was the Titanic's orchestra -- playing on as the ship tilted and water rushed aboard -- that is the most enduring memory of the maritime disaster. Eyewitness said the musicians were stoic; that their music calmed passengers who were boarding lifeboats or -- as was the case with 1,517 of them -- resigning themselves to their impending deaths on April 15, 1912. Hartley and his fellow musicians exemplified courage as defined by author Ernest Hemingway: "grace under pressure."
An estimated 30,00-to-40,000 mourners lined the funeral route for Hartley when his body was returned to Britain. Hartley's fiancée would never marry.
Where did Hartley and his fellow musicians find the courage that kept them playing to the end? Playing songs that according to varying eyewitness accounts, possibly included the Christian hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee" but was more likely the then-popular waltz "Autumn Dream."
Hartley was raised a Methodist, and his religious faith and sense of duty influenced his conduct, according to music journalist Steve Turner, author of "The Band that Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic." "[Hartley's] moral character and his personal assurance that death was not the end must have stirred his bandsmen," he wrote. "Together as a band under Hartley's leadership, they transcended their personal limitations."
In an interview with the online magazine of the United Methodist Church, Turner elaborated:
The buyer of Hartley's violin, identified only as a "British collector of Titanic items," paid $1.7 million after taxes and commission. The spruce and maple violin is not playable, having been ruined by sea water.
Over the last few years, the violin had been displayed at museums in the United States and United Kingdom. Intriguingly, those who have held it say they've felt the power of the dead musician's sense of duty, courage, and religious faith. "In my 20 years as an auctioneer, I can honestly say I don't think any article has made people show as much emotion as this one," said Andrew Aldridge of Henry Aldridge & Son, which auctioned the violin and specializes in Titanic memorabilia. "People pick it up and start crying."
"It represents everything good about people -- that's the only explanation I can come up with for why it causes so much emotion."
Courage, duty, faith -- that these things live on in Hartley's violin suggests that these virtues do not belong to a bygone era, as cynics would have us believe.