Scott Joplin (1868-1917): Piano Rags
Even though we know and love Scott Joplin's music, preciousfew facts about his life are available. It is not agreed on when or where hewas born, and 24th November 1868, the most widely accepted date, is probablynot accurate. His mother, whose memory was faulty, put him down as being bornin Texarkana, Texas, a town which was, in reality, established some five yearslater. When Joplin was very young, and when it finally became a real place, hisfamily did move there, leaving the farm where Joplin's father, born intoslavery, worked. Young Scott was allowed, at the age of seven, to play thepiano in a white neighbour's house; a local music teacher, hearing him noodlearound, took an interest in the talented boy and offered him free lessons.
After high school in Sedalia, Missouri, which became hishome base, Joplin lived the life of an itinerant musician, performing whereverand whenever he could. He formed his own band to gig for money, writing songsand playing the piano in upscale black social clubs (one of which was calledthe Maple Leaf). He may have even taken classes at a local college to learnnotation. Early on he began to publish songs and the then-fashionable pianorags, and also to develop some larger stage works, a step toward fulfilling hislifelong 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 marriagesoon ended. In June 1904 he married Freddie Alexander, who died some ten weekslater, at the age of twenty, from pneumonia. After this he left Sedalia, neverto return. Because an earlier failed tour with an opera (now lost) called AGuest of Honor left him in terrible debt, he had to cast about for money as hiscareer was taking off. After toiling about in St Louis for a while he went, in1907, to New York City, where he became associated with publishers (the retailsale of sheet music was a cash industry in those pre-recording days) and beganto earn a good living as a composer. He wrote an opera, Treemonisha, consideredby many to be his masterpiece, and when the young Irving Berlin published hishit song Alexander's Ragtime Band, Joplin claimed that much of it was stolenfrom 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 in1917, 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. Unlikewriting in, say, sonata form, ragtime is a style more than a set ofconstruction limitations - though not without form - and is so-named, accordingto Joplin, "...because it has such a ragged movement." Ragtime music is favouredby a free sense of syncopation, which is when a steady beat is established andoffbeats bounce against it.
This sort of musical hijinks, at least to the ears of thegilded age, was decadent, an indication of darker (in both heft and skin tone--aragtime song was also called a "coon song") musical forces at work. Ragtimeseemed 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) healways thought of himself as a composer more than a Tin Pan Alley songster.
The present disc opens with Joplin's most famouscomposition, the 1899 (or 1897) Maple Leaf Rag, the best-known instrumental ragof the period. Legend has it that a white publisher walked into the upscaleblack Maple Leaf Club--something that, in those days, simply did not happen--andseated at the piano was none other than Scott Joplin, playing the Maple LeafRag. 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 outdidhimself in Easy Winners, one of Joplin's greatest achievements built on similarprinciples, it is the Maple Leaf which continues to hold our attention today:its use of scintillating syncopations over the barline, an uncommon practiceeven in the rag, gives this piece its sexy surface, coupled with its use ofblue notes and sliding chromatic melodies.
This recording also includes the mainstay piano favouriteThe Entertainer. This interesting trifle, which became all the rage onintermediate pianos everywhere in the 1970s through a motion picture called TheSting, renewed people's interest in ragtime, Joplin's in particular.
Heliotrope Bouquet: A Slow Drag Two Step was composed inChicago in 1907, a collaboration between Joplin and Louis Chauvin, a youngerragtime 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--AMexican Serenade. Latin music and Ragtime music were always thought to havesimilar rhythmic attributes.
Joplin wrote his Pine Apple Rag for a famous vaudevillegroup called the Musical Spillers, and they played it on two xylophones and amarimba accompanied by a theatre (that is a small, pickup) orchestra. It is awhiz-bang piece, dominated, at least in the music's second strain, by a singlerhythmic figure, again, another uncommon ragtime practice. When the Spillersdid play it, it often received such an ovation that it had to be repeated.
The Paragon Rag is, for the attentive listener, something ofa quirky departure for Joplin; in its second theme, one hears a composer tryingto drop some of the expected conventions, in this case, the standard"oom-chuck" left hand one expects in a rag, and trying to stretch theboundaries of his form. He accomplishes a similar progression away in EliteSyncopations, 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 thoughtto be an aggressive, hyperthyroid music, and these types of pieces serve asbromides). Both also feature, more so than many of Joplin's other works,counterpoint, or a dialogue between the left and right hands (incontradistinction 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 beof interest for the Joplinite (both newfound and seasoned) because it displays,from an early age, this composer's innate understanding of his material. Allthe features we associate with the later Joplin are well in place: his abilityto spin out long melodies even with syncopation; his chromaticism; his easy,directed sense of harmonic development (the sign of a real composer, and not soprevalent in the Tin Pan Alley hackworkers). Even in much later, lesser pieceslike Fig Leaf--a High Class Rag or the Country Club Rag, we still can trace allthe stylistic tricks back to the earlier works, and see that Joplin, even whilepressing ahead, felt essentially attached to a certain, unshakable tradition.