(Post updated on April 9, 2009. See link below at the end of the post.)
One of my favourite composers of all time is the great Scott Joplin. He is the most well-known of the composers of a form of music known as Ragtime–music which predates jazz, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, rock-n-roll, disco, and even rap and hip-hop.
Late in the 1890s, a craze for a new kind of music called Ragtime swept over America. The instant popularity of Ragtime increased with the advent of the new century, thrilling some observers of American culture, alarming some others. By 1910, the mania had reached its peak and a decline set in, and the outbreak of the First World War signaled the end of the Ragtime era. Elements of the music, however, remained alive in jazz and in popular dance, theater, and movie music, and traces of Ragtime remain in American vernacular music of our own today.
The ultimate diffusion of Ragtime mirrored its origins. Nurtured primarily by a large corps of itinerant black pianists in the Midwest, Ragtime synthesized diverse musical strands—marching-band music, Euro-American dances such as the polka, quadrille, and schottisch, sentimental songs, salon music—binding them together with the vital syncopated rhythms indigenous to black music in Africa, the Caribbean, and in the United States. The first published rag came from the pen of a white imitator—bandmaster William H.Krell, whose “Mississippi Rag” of 1897 nevertheless reveals a close study of the true creators of this music form, black men, but, black composers soon made their way into print as well and received much of their rightful due.
Ragtime grew up in cafes, saloons, and what the period referred to as sporting houses. The Midwest of the ’90s retained much of its frontier origins, and the flourishing tenderloins provided a haven for the early Ragtime pianists whose music hovered just below the border of respectability. To some, however, Ragtime meant more than merely the sonic tapestry of the red-light district or a showplace for keyboard prowress; they saw the possibility of it escaping from its environment and becoming a medium of serious composition. None maintained this vision of a highly evolved, “classic” Ragtime with greater devotion than a young black musician named Scott Joplin. Through ceaseless labor and considerable genius, he succeeded in transforming the rough vibrancy of his forbears into a subtle and polished act.
Many details in the life of America’s first great black composer remain uncertain. Scott Joplin was born between June-November 1867 and January 1868, and even until today, his day of birth is still in heated contention. Even his place of birth in East Texas (some records state Linden, Texas OR Texarkana, Texas) is still a matter of rancorous debate. Being a black man, it is understandable of the diminished knowledge surrounding Joplin’s birth, since at that time, practically no records were kept on the early lives of millions of black citizens in birth records at hospitals or county/census registrar seats. Especially since so many millions of black citizens were born at home, and delivered by black midwives, and not by doctors. However, regarding his ingenious piano works in the style known as Ragtime, it is undisputed that Scott Joplin created a place for himself among the great composers of piano music in Western culture. Joplin’s syncopated musical style found expression in the popular idiom of piano Ragtime, a style that flourished along the Mississippi river in the closing decade of the Nineteenth Century and which endured as a prominent piano style until the end of World War I.
To this improvisational genre Joplin brought great artistry, craftsmanship, and elegance. His piano works influenced such great composers as Claude Debussy, and Joplin is claimed as an important contributor in both serious music and as an innovator in the development of piano Jazz. However, it is clear that Joplin himself considered his music to be in the classical tradition of Western art music since this was the music of his background and education.
Scott Joplin was the child of a former slave and a free-born black woman, Giles and Florence Givens Joplin, and he grew up in the town of Texarkana on the Texas-Arkansas border. He had few early educational opportunities, but his mother took an active interest in his education, and most members of his family played musical instruments. Julius Weiss, a German immigrant musician, taught the young Joplin and played a significant role in the formation of Joplin’s artistic aspirations.
His activities during the 1880s are not documented, but anecdotal evidence suggests that he lived for a while in Sedalia, Missouri, a town later linked to his fame. He also worked as a traveling musician and became a close associate of Ragtime pioneer, Tom Turpin, in St Louis. In 1891 he was back in Texarkana, performing with a minstrel company. In 1893 he went to Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition and led a band, playing the cornet.
He returned to Sedalia in 1894, joined the Queen City Cornet Band (a 12-piece ensemble of African-American musicians), playing lead cornet, and formed his own dance band. He traveled with his Texas Medley Quartette, a vocal group, performing as far east as Syracuse, New York, where his first two publications were issued, the songs Please Say You Will and A Picture of Her Face.
Joplin attended music classes at George R. Smith College in Sedalia, and he taught piano and composition to several younger Ragtime composers, including Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden (with whom he composed collaborative Rags). In 1898 and 1899 he performed as a pianist at the Maple Leaf Club (made famous by Maple Leaf Rag) and the Black 400 Club, and Joplin formed a fruitful relationship with the music publisher John Stark, who published about one-third of Joplin’s known works.
Early in 1899, Joplin’s first composition was issued, the piano Ragtime piece, Original Rags. Dissatisfied with the usual arrangement whereby publishers purchased popular music outright for $25 or less, Joplin then obtained the services of a lawyer before publishing again. This was a wise decision, for his next publication, Maple Leaf Rag, on which he had a royalty contract paying one cent per copy, was an extraordinary success. Its success was not immediate, however, since only 400 copies were sold in the first year, but it sold half a million copies by 1909, thereby providing Joplin with a steady, albeit small, income. The most famous of all piano Rags, Maple Leaf Rag, formed the basis of Joplin’s renown and justified his title as the “King of Ragtime Composers.”
In 1901, Joplin moved to St Louis with Belle, his new wife, and devoted his time to composition and teaching, relegating performance to a minor part of his activities. Adding to his fame through the next few years were such outstanding Rags as Sunflower Slow Drag (1901, with Scott Hayden), The Easy Winners (1901), The Entertainer (1902) and The Strenuous Life (1902), a tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt.
Despite his success as a Ragtime composer, his ambition was to write for the lyric theatre. His first effort in this direction was The Ragtime Dance, a ballet for dancers and a singer-narrator, depicting a black American ball such as those held at Sedalia’s Black 400 Club. It was first staged on November 24, 1899 at Wood’s Opera House in Sedalia, although it was not published until 1902. His next stage work was A Guest of Honor, an opera depicting black leader Booker T. Washington’s dinner in the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. Joplin applied for a copyright in February 1903 and took the opera on tour with his company of 30 the following August. Early in the tour the receipts were stolen and the company disbanded. The score was never published and subsequently has been lost.
A notable Rag of 1904 was his The Cascades, performed at the St Louis World’s Fair. Another very popular composition was The Chrysanthemum, dedicated to Freddie Alexander, whom Joplin married in June 1904. She died the following September and was the person to whom he dedicated his next opera, Treemonisha.
In 1907, by which time he had published more than 40 works, mostly Rags, Joplin moved to New York with the intention of finding a publisher for his second opera, on which he was still working. Within his first year in New York he befriended, helped and encouraged Joseph F. Lamb, a young white man who was to become one of Ragtime’s greatest composers. Joplin left his longtime publisher Stark and tried several New York firms, finally settling with Seminary Music, with which he published such piano pieces as Wall Street Rag (which includes a descriptive narrative of events in the famed financial district), Paragon Rag (dedicated to the Colored Vaudeville Benevolent Association, of which he was a member), Solace (a syncopated non-Rag, subtitled “A Mexican Serenade”), and Pine Apple Rag. Seminary Music was linked to and shared an office with Ted Snyder Music, where Irving Berlin was employed at the beginning of his long career. It was through this connection, Joplin maintained, that Berlin had access to the score of Treemonisha, from which he supposedly stole a theme for use in his hit song Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
Joplin completed Treemonisha in 1910 and, after failing to find a publisher willing to issue the score of some 250 pages, he published the score himself in May 1911. The score received a very favorable review in the American Musician and Art Journal in June 1911, and soon afterwards Joplin announced several stagings, but none reached fruition. The only known performances during his lifetime were unstaged run-throughs without scenery or orchestra in 1911, a staging of only the final number in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1913, and an orchestral performance in 1915 of the ballet from Act 2, Frolic of the Bears. The last work Joplin saw in print was his Magnetic Rag (1914), which he issued through his own publishing company, formed with Lottie Stokes, his third wife. He continued composing almost to the end of his life, including more stage works and orchestral music, but the manuscripts remained unpublished and were apparently destroyed in 1961.
The disaster of Treemonisha dealt a mortal blow to the composer’s spirit. Changes in his personality had already begun to disturb his wife and friends. His quiet, level temperment became unpredictable, his behaviour tense, suspicious, increasingly moody. His skill at the piano declined seriously. After the debacle of the Treemonisha the pace of disintegration increased,, until Joplin had to be taken to Manhatten State Hospital in the fall of 1916. Even there, he continued to compose during occasional lucid moments, feverishly scketching and revising. But, Joplin never recovered, and he died in the hospital, on April 1, 1917, the year America entered World War I.
In his compositions, Scott Joplin strove for a “classical” excellence, and he longed for recognition as a composer of artistic merit, rather than one simply of popular acclaim. Although he lavished much of his creative efforts on extended works, it was with his piano Rags (miniatures rarely exceeding 68 bars of music) that he attained greatness. Both he and Stark referred to these pieces as “Classic Rags,” comparing their artistic merit to that of European classics. The comparison is not unwarranted, for Joplin clearly sought to transcend the indifferent and commonplace quality of most Ragtime. This aim is evident in his comments regarding his music, in his plea for faithful renderings of his scores, and most of all in the care and skill with which he crafted his works. Joplin’s Rags, unlike those of most of his contemporaries, are notable for their melodically interesting inner voices, consistent and logical voice-leading, subtle structural relationships and rich chromatic harmonies supported by strongly directed bass lines. These qualities are all apparent in Rose Leaf Rag, where Joplin also replaces the traditional Ragtime bass pattern with an original figure. Throughout his music, Joplin reveals himself as a composer of substance.
A renewed interest in Joplin’s music began in the early 1940s, though such interest remained limited until the Ragtime revival of the 1970s, when most of his works were reissued, performed, and analyzed. The movie, “The Sting”, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, created a surge of interest in Joplin’s music, using many of his most well-known compositions: “The Entertainers”, “Maple Leaf Rag”, and “Solace”. Treemonisha was lavishly staged and recorded by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976. Public acclaim and official recognition came in the form of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976 and a commemorative postage stamp in 1983.
Today, Scott Joplin is remembered in the famous Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival held each year in Sedalia, Missouri, during the month of May. This year’s festival will be held between May 30-June 3, 2007. Here is a link for the festival”
The awakening of the last three decades in black culture and history has not yet resurrected Joplin and his contemporaries, who remain barely known beyond a growing coterie of Ragtime devotees. The Sedalia Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival aims to put an end to that, and it offers a perfect opportunity to discover the beauties of his music and accord him the honor that he so justly deserves.
For your listening pleasure, the following are samples of Joplin’s well-known compositions.
WERNER ICKING MUSIC ARCHIVES: http://www.icking-music-archive.org/ByComposer/Joplin.php
KUNDST DER FUGE MIDI RAGTIME FILES: http://www.kunstderfuge.com/ragtime.htm This site also showcases other Ragtime composers:
- James Price Johnson
- Scott Joplin
- Joseph Lamb
- Jelly Roll Morton
- James Scott
|The Complete Works of Scott Joplin|
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2. “Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction”, [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1969], H. Wiley Hitchcock.