It’s Black and White; the hidden effects of cutting corners



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?

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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7 thoughts on “It’s Black and White; <i>the hidden effects of cutting corners</i>”

  1. 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.

  2. Brilliant — and moving — article, Holly. Brava! And it brings to mind the famous (and all-too-often-true) French expression “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (Basically translated, the more things change, the more it’s the same old thing!)

  3. Fine work!! I came across a similar reference regarding the RMS Titanic musicians, and was heartbroken to hear about the posthumous disrespect the company “paid” them following the disaster.


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