Contact Us    
It's Black and White

The hidden effects of cutting corners

by Holly Mulcahy
April 5, 2010

Bookmark and Share
It's Black and White


It was a combined effort of several orchestras and several conductors that helped raise money for the dead musicians' families. Edward Elgar, Thomas Beecham, The London Symphony and The Philharmonic Orchestra were just some of the star players we'd recognize in this decade. In total, 500 musicians filled the stage at Royal Albert Hall, with an audience at capacity to hear the concert that May afternoon.

So touching was this concert, it made headlines in both Europe and the United States. The only thing to eclipse the concert's sheer size was the funeral from the previous week. It was for the band leader of the musicians who perished. Aside from the packed funeral route and overflowing church, seven brass bands led the procession to the church (photo), making it seem grander than any parade for nobles or celebrities.

But why were these musicians' circumstances noticed only after they died while making a horrific situation a little better? Are musicians and the music they produce only important at the extremes of life?


It all started in early 1912 when an enterprising talent agency, C.W. and F.M. Black, offered its clients a lower fee for musicians. Instead of paying standard union wages, the agency monopolized the market quickly, leaving musicians a choice to either join the agency or have no work.

Just about every passenger steamship company had signed with C.W. and F.M. Black, leaving the option for musicians working on cruise ships to work for Black, or not at all. Suddenly, working for the agency meant a 33% pay cut and no benefits currently offered by the Amalgamated Musician's Union.

In March, 1912, a month before the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, the Amalgamated Musicians Union appealed to the White Star Line's managing director, Bruce Ismay, hoping White Star could at least offer a little more money than the token shilling, which officially made musicians "crew members."

Not amused, Bruce Ismay volleyed, "If the union objects to the shilling per month, then White Star will carry the musicians as Second Class passengers." That conclusion robbed the musicians of even the token shilling.

So the RMS Titanic left the South Hampton port with 8 musicians, all officially listed as Second Class passengers, living in Third Class cabins, (adjacent from the potato washer), and working for a severely reduced wage.


Life on the ship for these musicians was hard work. After an 8AM breakfast, there was to be an hour of rehearsal and planning in the cramped storage room on E deck. The free time was never really free since musicians had to be "on call" all the time. At lunch time, the musicians split into two groups. A trio would play for the A la Carte or Parisian Restaurant, and the quintet would entertain the First Class dining room. This was the same drill for dinner services, which could last well past 9PM.

So on the night the Titanic collided with the iceberg, it was likely the musicians had just packed up and were enjoying a smoke, or had just gone to bed. While there are stories of the musicians being ordered by Captain Smith to play, and of band leader Hartley asking his colleagues to play, the fact of the matter was the music they produced did seem to create calm and order. Happy waltzes and Ragtime tunes were remembered by many survivors. But some survivors 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.

Regardless of how the music started, it was how it finished that was frozen in the memories of survivors and the press. Countless recollections from many lifeboats, accounts from crew and passengers alike, all had roughly the same story. Musicians played until it the ship split in two. Survivors may have argued about the final musical selection- a hymn? -a waltz? But did it matter? The majority of the survivors felt the musicians were heroes for playing until the bitter end, courageous for offering beautiful music in one grim tragedy.


But the tragedy was just beginning for the musicians' families. When it came to collecting death benefits from White Star, musicians' families were told they were denied simply because the musicians were contracted employees of C.W. and F.M. Black. When the families approached the C.W. and F.M. Black, they were told, "Sorry, musicians were listed as Second Class passengers; therefore White Star should have to be responsible." To add even more insult to injury, some of the family members of the deceased musicians received bills for the uniforms the musicians were forced to purchase in order to be a member of the Titanic band.


That whole chain of events was nearly a century ago. Here's the part of the article where "musicians have come a long way since then" should be inserted. But after the recent economic turmoil, there are so many examples of musicians being undercut and marginalized the same way White Star and C.W. and F.M. Black did, each trying to save every last penny for themselves.

One example was when the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra toured through the United States beginning in January 2010. Musicians were paid a paltry $40 per concert, had zero per diem, and were put in the cheapest of hotels. Meanwhile, concertgoers were paying premium ticket prices while concert presenters claimed ignorance or indifference to the working conditions.

Even organizations in the United States are pulling some sleight of hand maneuvers under the guise of the bad economy, not unlike those from C.W. and F.M. Black. To add irony, many of these same groups are using various metaphors about the Titanic disaster to describe their own impending doom.

Is music in the 21st century being devalued and diluted to a level of cultural indentured servitude as seen in past centuries? Or are musicians at fault for accepting conditions they play in?

Comments (1)

Post a Comment

telemann from Fairfax VA writes:
April 5, 2010
Musician performers are partly held hostage by the leaders of the musical establishment - who are continuing to make "classical music" a closed affair where they run the show in the 21st Century.

In case casual viewers are not sure what I mean, in the early-middle 20th Century musical revolutionaries took control of the direction and the definition of "quality"of new composition in music, dumping audiences in the process. Cut off from revitalization by new musical composition intended to communicate with audiences, classical music lost attraction to younger music enthusiasts. It gradually declined and audiences grayed.

Proof: in his full-page article on the status of classical music for the millenium edition of the Washington Post, Chief classical music critic, Tim Page, admitted that not a single piece composed since 1950 has been accepted by concert audiences.

Composers and other arbiters of taste in the music establishment are not affected by audience views or those of other music consumers - because even though the ponds may shrink, they are still the big frogs in them.

With this fundamentally crippling constraint on the direction of classical music, players - stuck with the music of the past or music of the present that is unacceptable to the vast majority of audiences - are caught in a bind.

Of course, bad faith or sharp practices on the part of orchestra managers and others, are a different kind of deal. In either case, getting the word out (as you do) , is the way to go.

Send Us Your Opinion
(Comments are moderated.)
Your Name:*

Your E-Mail Address:*
(Confidential. Will not be published.)


Note: In order to control automated spam submissions, URLs are no longer permitted in this form.

Please type the letters you see above.


Bookmark and Share

» hollymulcahy@partialobserver.com

RSS Feed for Neo Classical: RSS Feed for Holly Mulcahy
Sign up to receive an e-mail notice when new articles by this author are published. Your address remains confidential, and you may cancel at any time. A confirmation email will be sent.

Your e-mail address:
po Books
Now Available!

Teachings of a Three Year Old... Turned Tyke,
by Hal Evan Caplan.

A father learns from the wisdom of his toddler.

More Information.

More by Holly Mulcahy
Starting Next Month, Neo Classical Will Have A New Home
It has been six wonderful years at The Partial Observer.
by Holly Mulcahy, 9/6/10
Speaking The Unspeakable
A slip of the tongue helps maintain vigilance.
by Holly Mulcahy, 8/2/10
Orchestra Etiquette Part II
A view through the centuries on proper behavior.
by Holly Mulcahy, 7/5/10
Orchestra Etiquette Part I
A view through the centuries on proper behavior.
by Holly Mulcahy, 6/7/10
Lambs to Slaughter
Eroding the value of mentoring programs.
by Holly Mulcahy, 5/3/10
Orchestra Smaland
What a Swedish mega-retailer can teach classical music about building a customer base.
by Holly Mulcahy, 3/1/10
The Dream Job
I wish my job as an orchestra musician was as easy as some make it seem.
by Holly Mulcahy, 2/1/10
» Complete List (39)

RSS Feed for Neo Classical: RSS Feed for Holly Mulcahy

Recently Published
View Article The Last Post
The Partial Observer is no more
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 10/15/21
The Challenges and Chances of Change
Announcing a coming change
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 10/8/21
On Each Continent We Worship
A new hymn for World Communion Sunday
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 10/1/21
Tending the Family Tree
A grandparent's charge
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 9/24/21
The Cross is Our Ground Zero
Why the cross is the crux of our faith
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 9/17/21
A Score Recalled
Remembering September 11th twenty years later
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 9/10/21
A Symphony Heard Around the World
Remembering September 2, 1945
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 9/3/21

Get the Partial Observer's
'recently published' headlines via RSS.

RSS Feed for Recently Published PO Articles    What is RSS?
Reproduction of original material from The Partial Observer without written permission is strictly prohibited.
The opinions expressed by site contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the editors.
Copyright ©2000-2021 partialobserver.com. All rights reserved.
Home · Site Map · Top