Friday, 28 August 2015

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Cumbrian men aiming to raise voices to the Titanic

Confused and afraid, the passengers assembled on deck to a reassuring soundtrack of waltzes and ragtime tunes.

Kevin Hamel photo
Kevin Hamel

Ice-cold water flooded the Titanic’s shredded hull as the lucky ones made for the life rafts.

And the band played on.

Music has long been a poignant part of the Titanic story. And now, nearly a century after the supposedly unsinkable vessel made its final journey to the bottom of the Atlantic, music is about to revive memories of the ship’s tragic maiden voyage.

During the next two years hundreds of Cumbrian children will perform music composed in tribute to the Titanic. Some will sing words which were spoken by survivors of the disaster.

And all will learn more about the liner’s links with their home county.

The idea for The Wreck of the Titanic came from Kevin Hamel of Cumbria Music Service, which works largely with the county’s schools. “I’m just fascinated by it,” says Kevin of the ship and its legend. “Over the years I’ve researched it and I think the Cumbrian connection has been underplayed.”

Make that the Cumbrian connections. Thomas Ismay, founder of the White Star Line which owned the Titanic, was brought up in Maryport and schooled in Brampton.

The Titanic’s chief engineer, Joseph Bell, was born in Maryport and educated in Carlisle. On the night of April 14, 1912, he and the 24 engineers under his command went down with their ship.

Another crew member’s fate is recorded on a stone at Stanwix Cemetery: ‘Richard Charles Gaddes, who was lost at sea on board the SS Titanic, aged 31.’

That fateful evening passengers enjoyed wines and spirits provided by Jeffersons of Whitehaven and ate biscuits made by Carr’s of Carlisle.

These local links, and the pull that the tragedy has had on successive generations, persuaded Kevin Hamel that the Titanic story could creatively inspire Cumbria’s children.

His aim was a new orchestral and choral work featuring professional players alongside young people with varying levels of musical experience. Written by acclaimed composer David Bedford, The Wreck of the Titanic will have its Cumbrian premiere in 2011 at a venue to be arranged.

About 45 schools, most of them primaries, have so far expressed interest. All will be taking part, if not in the performance then by learning sections of the work in class.

The performance will feature Cumbria’s youth orchestra, youth choirs, and children taking part in the Wider Opportunities scheme, which allows young people to learn an instrument free of charge for a year.

The children will be accompanied by eight players from the Lancashire Sinfonietta, reflecting the eight-piece band which played as the Titanic sank.

“The big thing is that every child can play a part, whether in the final performance or in their school,” says Kevin Hamel. “We’re not just looking at one big performance. Some of it works well as stand-alone pieces that children can work on in class.

“For the performance we felt it important that young players were able to experience the excitement of playing alongside world-class musicians.

“Writing for both inexperienced young players and top professionals required an exceptional talent. David Bedford’s skill of composing for unusual and challenging combinations made him an obvious choice.”

Unusual and challenging indeed. In a career stretching back nearly half a century David has fused classical music with the work of some of rock and pop’s biggest names, arranging classical pieces for artists including Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Madness.

In the Sixties he became the first composer in the country to work in schools with pupils of all abilities.

“It’s very stimulating to work with young musicians,” he says. “They are so enthusiastic. They won’t all have to be skilled musicians to take part. Some of them will be able to create their own music. I’ve sent some pictures of an iceberg and given suggestions for a composition.”

David expects to complete his 50-minute work by the end of this year. For the narration and the chorus he is using quotes from Titanic survivors’ accounts and contemporary newspaper reports.

His music will be interspersed with tunes played during the Titanic’s final hours, with the same instruments: three violins, two cellos, two pianos and a bass.

The songs include Autumn, which a radio operator who survived the disaster claimed was played as the ship sank. Others have said the orchestra slid to its watery grave while playing the portentously titled Nearer My God to Thee.

Accounts of the liner’s final moments differ in several other respects. “Some people said there was a huge explosion, some didn’t,” says David. “Some said it broke in half. The actual sinking, as reflected in my music, is very quiet.”

Cumbria Music Service commissioned The Wreck of the Titanic with two north-west counterparts which also have Titanic connections: Liverpool, where the White Star Line was based, and Lancashire, the birthplace of the ship’s bandleader Wallace Hartley.

Performances will take place in Lancashire and Liverpool in July 2010 and in Cumbria the following year. David will be working with the young performers in each area.

The project could then go global. In 2012, the centenary of the ship’s sinking, it is hoped to arrange simultaneous performances in Southampton, Cherbourg and Cobh, Ireland – the three ports where passengers boarded prior to setting off across the Atlantic. There may also be a performance in New York – the intended destination.

David says some Cumbrian children could take part in these performances. But first the county needs to find a venue for its home production.

Kevin Hamel is seeking somewhere large enough to house an estimated 150 young people playing instruments and singing, plus “a potentially huge audience. We were looking at Carlisle but perhaps it should be Maryport. We might look at an outdoor performance in west Cumbria.”

As well as the performance, wherever it may be, Kevin also envisages school dance classes in which children learn waltz and ragtime steps. There will be workshops on how the Titanic was built and virtual morse code transmitters.

Schools will be able to access Titanic-related events and exhibitions at libraries, archives and museums, including Maryport Maritime Museum.

Cumbria Music Service is also producing a CD-Rom, with the help of £3,500 sponsorship from Cumberland Building Society. This will be used by primary schools in Cumbria, Lancashire, Liverpool and possibly nationwide as part of the key stage two curriculum.

These are hi-tech variations on our enduring fascination with the unsinkable ship that slid into the cold, dark ocean.

Admiration for the sacrifice made by those who gave up their lifeboat places has never died. Nor has fascination with the band who played on.

“It’s very moving to know that the last time some of these pieces were played together was during the Titanic’s final moments,” says David Bedford.

“It’s still a story which has great resonance. It was a tremendous blow to the confidence of the time, with the irony of so many White Star people saying publicly that the ship was unsinkable. The sadness at the loss of life is still there.”

To learn more about becoming involved in The Wreck of the Titanic email Kevin Hamel at



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