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ClassicsOnline Home » JOPLIN: Piano Rags, Vol. 1
Scott Joplin (1868-1917): Piano Rags
Even though we know and love Scott Joplin’s music, precious
few facts about his life are available. It is not agreed on when or where he
was born, and 24th November 1868, the most widely accepted date, is probably
not accurate. His mother, whose memory was faulty, put him down as being born
in Texarkana, Texas, a town which was, in reality, established some five years
later. When Joplin was very young, and when it finally became a real place, his
family did move there, leaving the farm where Joplin’s father, born into
slavery, worked. Young Scott was allowed, at the age of seven, to play the
piano in a white neighbour’s house; a local music teacher, hearing him noodle
around, took an interest in the talented boy and offered him free lessons.
After high school in Sedalia, Missouri, which became his
home base, Joplin lived the life of an itinerant musician, performing wherever
and whenever he could. He formed his own band to gig for money, writing songs
and playing the piano in upscale black social clubs (one of which was called
the Maple Leaf). He may have even taken classes at a local college to learn
notation. Early on he began to publish songs and the then-fashionable piano
rags, and also to develop some larger stage works, a step toward fulfilling his
lifelong interest in opera.
In 1901 Joplin moved to St Louis with his first wife, Belle.
He also spent time in Chicago before returning to Arkansas, where his marriage
soon ended. In June 1904 he married Freddie Alexander, who died some ten weeks
later, at the age of twenty, from pneumonia. After this he left Sedalia, never
to return. Because an earlier failed tour with an opera (now lost) called A
Guest of Honor left him in terrible debt, he had to cast about for money as his
career was taking off. After toiling about in St Louis for a while he went, in
1907, to New York City, where he became associated with publishers (the retail
sale of sheet music was a cash industry in those pre-recording days) and began
to earn a good living as a composer. He wrote an opera, Treemonisha, considered
by many to be his masterpiece, and when the young Irving Berlin published his
hit song Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Joplin claimed that much of it was stolen
from one of his own opera’s scenes. He contracted tertiary syphilis in 1916,
which led to his hospitalisation and eventual death in a mental institution in
1917, possibly at the age of 49.
Scott Joplin is an undisputed master, the self-anointed
“King of the Ragtime Writers,” but it was a form he by no means invented;
hundreds of examples were in print before his first known publication. Unlike
writing in, say, sonata form, ragtime is a style more than a set of
construction limitations - though not without form - and is so-named, according
to Joplin, “…because it has such a ragged movement.” Ragtime music is favoured
by a free sense of syncopation, which is when a steady beat is established and
offbeats bounce against it.
This sort of musical hijinks, at least to the ears of the
gilded age, was decadent, an indication of darker (in both heft and skin tone—a
ragtime song was also called a “coon song”) musical forces at work. Ragtime
seemed more the province of dance halls and cheap bars than of the upper crust,
and though Joplin worked in this field (and moved amongst these people) he
always thought of himself as a composer more than a Tin Pan Alley songster.
The present disc opens with Joplin’s most famous
composition, the 1899 (or 1897) Maple Leaf Rag, the best-known instrumental rag
of the period. Legend has it that a white publisher walked into the upscale
black Maple Leaf Club—something that, in those days, simply did not happen—and
seated at the piano was none other than Scott Joplin, playing the Maple Leaf
Rag. This publisher then bought the piece and, by all accounts, made a mint.
True or not, this piece was Joplin’s jump to fame, and even though he outdid
himself in Easy Winners, one of Joplin’s greatest achievements built on similar
principles, it is the Maple Leaf which continues to hold our attention today:
its use of scintillating syncopations over the barline, an uncommon practice
even in the rag, gives this piece its sexy surface, coupled with its use of
blue notes and sliding chromatic melodies.
This recording also includes the mainstay piano favourite
The Entertainer. This interesting trifle, which became all the rage on
intermediate pianos everywhere in the 1970s through a motion picture called The
Sting, renewed people’s interest in ragtime, Joplin’s in particular.
Heliotrope Bouquet: A Slow Drag Two Step was composed in
Chicago in 1907, a collaboration between Joplin and Louis Chauvin, a younger
ragtime composer of note (and someone for whom Joplin had great admiration).
The piece makes odd, uncommon use of a sensual Habanera beat, as does Solace—A
Mexican Serenade. Latin music and Ragtime music were always thought to have
similar rhythmic attributes.
Joplin wrote his Pine Apple Rag for a famous vaudeville
group called the Musical Spillers, and they played it on two xylophones and a
marimba accompanied by a theatre (that is a small, pickup) orchestra. It is a
whiz-bang piece, dominated, at least in the music’s second strain, by a single
rhythmic figure, again, another uncommon ragtime practice. When the Spillers
did play it, it often received such an ovation that it had to be repeated.
The Paragon Rag is, for the attentive listener, something of
a quirky departure for Joplin; in its second theme, one hears a composer trying
to drop some of the expected conventions, in this case, the standard
“oom-chuck” left hand one expects in a rag, and trying to stretch the
boundaries of his form. He accomplishes a similar progression away in Elite
Syncopations, where he even uses a chromatic bass line in octaves.
Pleasant Moments and Bethena are both cantabile ragtime waltzes,
gorgeous with lush harmonies and lilting melodies (ragtime is usually thought
to be an aggressive, hyperthyroid music, and these types of pieces serve as
bromides). Both also feature, more so than many of Joplin’s other works,
counterpoint, or a dialogue between the left and right hands (in
contradistinction to the usual practice of the left hand being accompaniment,
the right hand playing the foreground melody).
One of Joplin’s first compositions, Original Rag, should be
of interest for the Joplinite (both newfound and seasoned) because it displays,
from an early age, this composer’s innate understanding of his material. All
the features we associate with the later Joplin are well in place: his ability
to spin out long melodies even with syncopation; his chromaticism; his easy,
directed sense of harmonic development (the sign of a real composer, and not so
prevalent in the Tin Pan Alley hackworkers). Even in much later, lesser pieces
like Fig Leaf—a High Class Rag or the Country Club Rag, we still can trace all
the stylistic tricks back to the earlier works, and see that Joplin, even while
pressing ahead, felt essentially attached to a certain, unshakable tradition.
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JOPLIN: Piano Rags, Vol. 1