‘Nearer my God to thee’: The Titanic hymn?   Leave a comment

This morning, 15th April 2012, the band on board the cruise ship Balmoral will again strike up the tune Horbury, the best-known accompaniment in Britain, at least, to the words of a Unitarian lady, the daughter of a radical journalist who was imprisoned for criticising the politics of the Bishop of Llandaff.  Sarah Adams was a close friend of the English poet, Robert Browning.  ‘Nearer my God to thee‘ was one of thirteen hymns which she contributed to the Unitarian collection published in 1841. It is based on Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Genesis 28 vv 10-22) and achieved widespread popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Dykes’ tune was written for the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861, named after the Yorkshire town where he made his first confession. However, in the USA, the tune Bethany had already become popular, written five years earlier by the founder of the Boston Academy of Music, Dr Lowell Mason.

So, there are two questions about the film portrayal of the events of the night of 14th-15th April 1912, when the ill-fated liner struck that iceberg in the North Atlantic. Firstly, was this the hymn, and, secondly, which tune did they play? – the British or the American?! Mrs Eva Hart, one of the longest-living survivors of the disaster, was adament that it was. However, she didn’t know if it was the last hymn they played. Others are sceptical about the tradition that it was Mrs Adams’ hymn that was played. Contemporary press reports quoted the ship’s radio operator, Harold Bride, who survived, as saying that it was the hymn-tune Autumn which was being played, and he should know! Why? Not only was he a former choirboy, but he was also in the sea, waiting to be rescued, watching the ship go down. However, there are three different hymns which were sung this tune in the early twentieth century, of which ‘The year is swiftly waning’ is perhaps the most likely candidate. The closing lines of its first verse were ‘And life, brief life, is speeding; the end is nearing fast’. 

Sir Ronald Johnson, who made a detailed study of the Titanic hymn, believed that the tune heard by Bride was probably ‘Aughton’, wrongly transcribed by reporters, which accompanied the hymn He Leadeth me! O Blessed Thought. It’s closing verse would certainly have been appropriate:

And when my task on earth is done

When by Thy grace the victory’s won

E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee

Since God through Jordan leadeth me.

However, if Bride got his tunes confused, and Mrs Hart was right, the most appropriate verse from Mrs Adams’ hymn, whether sung to the American tune, or the British one, would perhaps have been the one which refers both to the Jacob story and the resurrection theme:

Then, with my waking thoughts

Bright with Thy Praise,

Out of my stony griefs

Bethel I’ll raise,

So by my woes to be

Nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer to Thee!

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