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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Remembering "Titanic" With Music

Sony Classical

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic has brought about the re-release of James Cameron’s masterpiece, “Titanic,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, retrofitted into the 3D format.  The soundtrack has been re-released, too, in a special ‘Anniversary Edition.’

I have seen “Titanic 3D,” and can attest that the film still holds up extraordinarily well as an old-fashioned epic in the best sense of the word. Even in 1997, after Hollywood had long since stopped "making 'em like that anymore," Cameron made a movie like that, and it’s terrific.  The 3D is unnecessary, and adds little to the power of the film. However, I admit it’s extremely well-rendered, and doesn’t distract from the narrative, either.

James Horner’s score for “Titanic” won an Oscar, and sold over 26 million albums worldwide. The music lover in me believes also that it wasn’t just because Celine Dion’s megahit “My Heart Will Go On” was embedded on the soundtrack album (this was in the age before iTunes). Horner’s score allowed millions to relive the Romeo and Juliet story on the high seas. Watching the movie again, I felt the score worked.

Stripped of the film, though, some elements of the score don't hold up as well. In the liner notes to the original “Back to Titanic” album (1998), Cameron notes that he wanted the score to be “unconventional and not the classic period score with its sweeping orchestral strings.” Horner’s score does use a traditional orchestra, but also includes Celtic pipes, and pennywhistles. It leans heavily on the voice as a lead instrument, both human and synthesized. It is these wordless, synthetic vocal textures that sink some of the tracks in the “Titanic” score today. Ironically, instead of creating a timeless score, the electronically created “ahh--ahh” vocal sounds immediately date the music to the mid-to-late 1990s.

The “Anniversary Edition” of the “Titanic” soundtrack includes the full 1997 album, and the welcome addition of fifteen tracks of period music performed by I Salonisti, who not only spent two days recording two dozen numbers from the White Star Line songbook, but they also appeared in the film as the band that went down with the ship.  The five-member ensemble performs classical repertoire by Johann Strauss and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, as well as popular hits of the day from operas by Jacques Offenbach and Ivan Caryll, and songwriters like Irving Berlin.  More so than Horner’s score, you can put on disc two of the new “Titanic” soundtrack and be transported back in time to 1912, enjoying the finery of Deck A with the likes of Jack, Rose, and the dastardly Cal Hockley, not to mention names like Astor and Guggenheim.

I Salonisti also perform two tracks that were not in the White Star Line songbook, but do feature prominently in the history of the doomed ship.  Both “Song of Autumn” and “Nearer My God to Thee” have been cited as the last number played by the band on deck before the ship sank into the north Atlantic on that cold April night.  For the movie, James Cameron uses “Nearer My God to Thee,” in what I think is still the most emotional scene in the film. The rendition on disc is the same as heard in “Titanic,” and includes some sound effects at the conclusion, followed by a quote from the film: “Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.”