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Aughton: ‘a noble thing’, John Chandler


…And the band played on. Everyone has this poignant image, as the Titanic went down, of the band sinking to their watery fate while still playing their instruments. But playing what? ‘Nearer my God, to Thee’ has come down in folklore, but when the minimalist composer Gavin Bryars described the inspiration for his epic piece, ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’ (first realised in 1972) he quoted the testimony of Harold Bride, junior wireless operator who survived. ‘The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while we were still working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing “Autumn”. How they ever did I cannot imagine.’

When a version of Bryars’ composition was first performed, incorporating the hymn tune ‘Autumn’, Sir Ronald Johnson suggested that Bride had been misunderstood, and that the hymn tune he was actually referring to was ‘Aughton’. The episcopalian hymn set to this tune included the most appropriate stanza: ‘And when my task on earth is done | When by Thy grace the victory’s won | E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee | Since God through Jordan leadeth me’. Bryars subsequently adapted the tune ‘Aughton’ as one of the movements of an extended version of the piece, recorded in 1994.

Around that time I was scouting around for interesting but unconsidered Wiltshire connections to the wider world, and I knew that Aughton was a tithing of Collingbourne Kingston, between Marlborough and Tidworth. So I set off (and failed) to find out what was the connection between this remote hamlet and an equally obscure tune which, nevertheless, may have had its moment of glory. Its composer was William Batchelder Bradbury (1816-68), a New England American who wrote many popular hymn tunes, including some still in use (how many of us remember ‘Yes, Jesus loves me’ etc, from Sunday School?). I could find no connection between Bradbury and Wiltshire, although I discovered another Aughton, in north Lancashire near Ormskirk. Then, after a considerable (but pre-internet) search, I gave up. But whenever I drive up the A338, past the turning to Aughton, I think of those noble musicians and wonder whether there was in fact a connection. It would be nice to know.