The Sinking of the Titanic

Back in the late 1970s, in the heyday of the Edinburgh University Experimental Art Society, the largest project the Society ever mounted was a staging of Gavin Bryars’s piece “The Sinking of the Titanic”. This took a whole evening, and filled the McEwan Hall of Edinburgh University. The first part of the production represented the voyage of RMS Titanic; each member of the audience was issued with a ticket with the name of one of the original passengers, and they were able to mill around the hall as if on the liner itself. Certain key passengers, and all the crew, were allocated to actors, and the events that took place on the original voyage were re-enacted, up to the striking of the iceberg and the subsequent sinking. None of this took place on a stage, so individual scenes would only be witnessed by members of the audience who happened to be in that part of the hall, just as on the voyage, people would only have been aware of what was going on in their immediate environs.

At the point of the sinking, the audience were divided into the saved and the lost, and seated in opposite parts of the hall, so that they faced each other over the orchestra, which now played Bryars’s piece to conclude the evening.

It was hugely successful; every ticket for the single performance was sold. But it was an immense effort to put on. I remember that my part was the journalist WT Stead (who went down with the ship), and I have retained a slightly macabre interest in Stead ever since.

With the centenary of the Titanic’s voyage coming up next year, I imagine there will be a lot of commemorations, especially in Belfast, where the ship was built. Whether these will include anything like that performance in the McEwan Hall, I rather doubt.

But I was interested to find another musical connection: the First Symphony of the Swedish composer Natanael Berg (1879-1957). He was in the process of composing this work in 1912, when he read about the Titanic disaster, which so affected him that he remodelled the finale of his symphony. The movement had been a bright and breezy piece representing the pleasures and achievements of maturity (the symphony is one of those youth-to-age pieces). He retained the opening, but added halfway through an unexpected thunderstroke, sweeping away all happiness and leading to a concluding funeral march – symbolising how catastrophe can strike unexpectedly in the midst of joy. I’m not sure that musically the result is completely convincing … it is not as effectively managed as the similar descent into calamity in the Fourth Symphony of Franz Schmidt, for instance. But the symphony as a whole is still pleasant to hear, and it would be a nice touch if the Ulster Orchestra would mount a performance of it next year as part of the centenary celebrations.

Incidentally, earlier this month I visited an old friend in Belfast, now 103, who I believe is probably the only person still alive who actually saw the Titanic before it sank. As a small child she witnessed it on sea trials in Belfast Lough.

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