ClassicsOnline Home » JOPLIN: Piano Rags, Vol. 2
Although Scott Joplin’s musical interests were considerably broader than what could be expressed in ragtime – he composed two operas (Treemonisha is considered by many to be his masterpiece), a ballet, and two orchestral works – he is best remembered today as the ‘King of the Ragtime Writers’, the master of freely syncopated and extraordinarily inventive piano rags. This recording includes the whirling, scintillating Stoptime Rag, the nostalgic Gladiolus Rag, and Joplin’s last ever work for piano, Reflection Rag. Volume One is available on Naxos 8.559114.
By David Denton
Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Piano Rags, Volume 2
While there is uncertainty regarding Scott Joplin's date of birth, considered to be in November 1868, there is less doubt as to his American birth-place: the developing border town Texarkana. This was situated in the north-eastern corner of Texas close to the state line that separated Texas from Arkansas. Born just six years after the abolition of slavery, Joplin 's father had been a slave while his mother was free born. His parents had amateur musical interests enabling him to grow up within a musically sympathetic home and by the age of seven he began piano lessons with a neighbouring white teacher. This local musician nurtured Joplin 's innate musical gifts and, as well as providing a rudimentary musical education, encouraged his life-long interest in music for the stage.
By the time he left school in Sedalia, Missouri, Joplin was sufficiently advanced to earn his living as a jobbing musician, playing the piano in bars and clubs, writing songs and performing in a dance band, playing piano, banjo and cornet. It was these early experiences that led him and other black musicians to ragtime, a style that had developed from his cultural environment and in particular the dance music of the black communities. In essence Ragtime was a fusion of African rhythms, derived from the black slave community, marching tunes and western European harmony emerging from native American composers such as Louis Gottschalk and Stephen Foster.
Joplin inherited the formal shape and constraints of the Rag with its regular pattern of sixteen-bar sections, usually repeated, all in the same tempo. Typical also was the duple metre - 2/4, (although 6/8 and 3/4 are occasionally used), a four bar introduction and modulations to related keys. Without any melodic development the structure became a 'necklace' of tunes; fresh ideas that frequently created an AABBCCDD pattern. Onto this mostly rigid framework Joplin raised the Rag to an art form and with Maple Leaf Rag ( Naxos 8.559114) elevated both the genre and his name for all time. Through published editions and versions for the pianola Ragtime rapidly gained widespread popularity, a craze lasting some twenty years roughly between 1895 and 1915.
Amongst Joplin's earliest compositions were marches and waltzes, two of which were published in 1896 the same year as The Crush Collision March, the earliest composition included here, which predates by just one year the first published Rag by the white bandmaster William H. Krell. The Crush Collision March is clearly not a Rag since it shares few, if any, of the regular ragtime features that belong to the majority of his forty or so original piano works, but instead, is an illustrative period piece depicting a train crash complete with notes in the score alerting the performer to the noise of the trains and train whistles.
By 1899 Joplin had produced his Rag-Time Dance, published seven years later in a condensed form, which now has all the characteristics associated with ragtime, bright melodic figuration and syncopated rhythms in the right hand over a steady, regular left hand providing harmonic support. Rag-Time Dance has the unusual addition of foot-tapping marked in the score by the word 'stamp' – a direction that fills the otherwise silent beats and sustains dramatic tension. The score directs the performer to "stamp the heel of one foot heavily upon the floor at the word 'stamp'". It further recommends the player not to "raise the toe from the floor while stamping". More typical of the Rag-Time Dance is its major key, extrovert mood created by busy semi-quaver movement in the right hand and the modulation to the subdominant after the first 16 bar 'strain'.
From the following year came Swipesy, a lively Cakewalk, a collaborative work written jointly by a black colleague Arthur Marshall and completed by Joplin. Here limited rhythmic patterns might fail to hold our interest were it not for its fresh, zestful melodic line. In 1901 Joplin married Belle and moved north east to St Louis, possibly to be nearer to his publisher John Stark, and lived on teaching work and the royalties coming from his hugely successful Maple Leaf Rag published in 1899. Composition also occupied him and amongst three new rags of 1901 was the playful Peacherine Rag.
A highly productive year followed with a number of Rags including A Breeze from Alabama. Dedicated to the black cornet-player P.G. Lowery, this is a cheerful work, its right-hand chords of sixths and thirds not unlike those of The Entertainer from the same year. Joplin 's Weeping Willow of 1903 has a song-like quality, possibly influenced by his steady and sometimes obsessive work on his first opera A Guest of Honor, an enterprising attempt to create a Rag Time Opera, and one that ultimately failed.
Following the failure of Joplin 's first marriage in 1904 he married again, his second wife dying from pneumonia just ten weeks after the ceremony. His compositions continued, however, and four new rags emerged including The Chrysanthemum and The Cascades. Subtitled an Afro-American Intermezzo, The Chrysanthemum has a highly personal trio section marked piano and dolce, while the rippling arpeggio figuration of The Cascades portrays the waterfall in the Cascade Gardens, a central feature of the 1904 World Fair in St Louis.
A year later there appeared Eugenia, a reflective rag (also in a version for band and orchestra) with the characteristic notice at the start: "It is never right to play Ragtime fast". While gaiety may not be noticeably present here, an infectious exuberance marks another 1905 Rag, The Rosebud March, named after a salon in St Louis and one of just two rags in 6/8.
In 1907 Scott Joplin abandoned his failing opera project, left Missouri and moved to New York in search of a new beginning. From this year date two further floral titled rags, an upbeat Rose Leaf Rag and nostalgic Gladiolus Rag whose emotions reach a high point in the final strain where expressive harmonies lend a tender, wistful quality, foreshadowing similarly deep emotions in his tango-serenade Solace ( Naxos 8.559114) that appeared two years later shortly after marriage to his third wife in 1909.
Joplin was by now working on his largest operatic venture, Treemonisha, a work that was to occupy him up until its ill-fated single performance in 1915. He was still producing miniature pieces, however, and from 1910 came Stoptime Rag, a whirling, scintillating scherzo, brimming with high spirits which, like Rag-Time Dance, requires performers to stamp their feet. From 1912 there appeared Scott Joplin's New Rag, a work whose sunny optimism was to be short-lived. When a subdued Magnetic Rag followed two years later, its emotional range clearly mirrored the composer's troubled mind and deteriorating mental condition brought on by feverish work on his opera. Crushed by the failure of Treemonisha in 1915, his last piano work, Reflection Rag, subtitled Syncopated Musings, from 1917 suggests, like his health, a declining creative energy no longer possessing that inspirational spark that lit many of his best works. With continuing depressions and now riddled with syphilis, Scott Joplin was to spend part of his final year in Manhattan State Hospital where he died a broken man. His Rags, however, live on and remain, whether they be reflective or joyous, a lasting document to a style in which he excelled, becoming the 'King of Ragtime Writers'.