|THE TITANIC'S BAND PLAYS IN A SCENE FROM A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, 1958|
It's just that the bar is set pretty high on this. We're not necessarily talking about favorite or best-loved books. There are many books that pack a wallop when you've just turned the final page and closed the covers; it's the rare book that lasts beyond that, causing your mind to return to it again and again. For me, a writer as well as reader, it might involve characters so memorable that I start speculating on how I'd write the continuation of their story. It could be a line or two that sticks in the mind, a line that you find yourself pulling out and using frequently. Or it could be one scene that haunts you, burns itself into your memory like a photographic negative. Whatever the case, I think a list of such books, like a list of one's closest friends, is probably quite short.*
*My own list wound up being short enough; eight titles. Maybe someday we'll discuss them all, but of course that isn't what today's piece is really about.
The point of this is to set up the video clip we're about to look at. One of the books that made my list is Psalm at Journey's End, Erik Fosnes Hansen's remarkable novel about the members of the famed band on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic. As you know, I'm something of a Titanic buff, but fictional treatments of the Titanic have rarely risen to the level of the drama of the real story. Psalm at Journey's End is the exception, and though the characters' names and their personal stories have been fictionalized (and, in fact, the Titanic itself is merely the vehicle, so to speak, through which their stories are told), Hansen's melancholy tale tells of the passion, the triumph and tragedy of the Titanic better than any recent movie could hope to.
The moment of truth comes on the novel's last page. Folklore has long supposed that "Nearer, My God, to Thee" was the piece which the band played as the ship went down. Walter Lord's definitive A Night to Remember rejected that tradition in favor of the Episcopal hymn "Autumn." Lord based his assessment on the eyewitness testimony of wireless operator Harold Bride, who was on the ship until the very end. However, in Lord's follow-up The Night Lives On, he addressed speculation that the piece to which Bride had been referring was actually "Songe d'Automne", a popular song of the time. Lord acknowledges the plausibility, indeed the probability, that this was in fact the final piece, but he concedes that we will probably never know for sure. Other historians have other opinions, the point being that such conjecture has long been part of the lore of the Titanic, and probably always will be.
Hansen, too, has his own theory, only his is far different, and adds to the poignancy of the ship's last moments. Recalling a memory from his childhood, bandleader Jason Coward asks the other musicians to join him in Handel's Largo. The Largo is the popular name for the aria "Ombra mai fù" from Handel's opera Serse. Not only is it the most famous aria from this seldom-performed opera, it comes right at the beginning - a real rarety. Imagine Bobby Darin starting every concert by singing "Mack the Knife" (which he did, incidentelly). Or, since we're discussing Handel, suppose he started Messiah with the "Hallelujia Chorus." Nothing like leading with your strength.
"Ombra mai fù" is a wonderfully evocative piece (although if you look at the lyrics, you'll find that it's only a song about the shade provided by a tree), and coming as it does at the end of this very sad book, telling such a sad story, it makes a powerful impact. The following is not taken from Serse; even though it comes at the beginning, you still have to get through the opening credits and the overture. There are plenty of concert versions to choose from, sung by mezzos, baritones, countertenors. I'll give you this filmed performance by Jennifer Larmore - I know, there's no apparent reason for it to have been shot in a shipyard, but in our context it seems quite appropriate.