SPAGHETTI RAG - RAG MUSIC WITH MANDOLINS
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Rag Music for Mandolins
As African-American music developed, in all its myriad incarnations, many of the stories surrounding its growth led to the creation of lasting stereotypical ideas about the musicians and their lives, ideas which have in no way increased our understanding and appreciation of the music itself. Ragtime emerged in the late-1800s, a turbulent time in American social history, and soon became popular far and wide thanks to a host of musicians who successfully promoted it by all means at their disposal - by the end of the century, with record sales of sheet music, ragmania was spreading around the world.
"I've got a ragtime dog and a ragtime cat, a ragtime piano in my ragtime flat… I'm certainly leading a ragtime life." So went one of the songs of the day, showing how the genre had taken its place in contemporary popular culture. Funnily enough, in the 1970s, after six decades of commercial oblivion, enthusiasm for ragtime music spread like wildfire again when, after overcoming various obstacles, music historian Vera Brodsky Lawrence eventually succeeded in getting the two volumes of Scott Joplin's collected works published, and then, two years later, in 1973, director George Roy Hill used his music for the soundtrack of The Sting.
Ragtime came from the background of slavery. Black musicians were expected to learn the basics of European instrumental technique so that they could perform when called on by their white masters, something that normally resulted in better living conditions. Even if they were not required to change their own musicality or the way they perceived music, as soon as their talents were recognised, the new musical idioms and instrumental techniques they learned led to a fusion between the way they played and the repertoire they performed. Parties, key events in the lives of both the black and white communities, provided most of these musicians' performance opportunities, and usually included dancing, to the accompaniment of strings, wind and percussion. Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha illustrates the key social role these dances played in plantation life.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, another means of musical participation emerged in the shape of the newly independent black churches. Their services featured the use of keyboard instruments, with which musicians had already come into contact in their masters' houses and at home. A new generation therefore learned something of European music through a varied repertoire of marches, polkas, opera arias and dance tunes. Itinerant black entertainers, both soloists and groups, began to perform in a variety of places to a variety of audiences, and ragtime may well have grown out of their encounters in barrel-houses with local, often self-taught musicians trying to sing and play blues on the piano.
"It's not music made explicitly to dance to, or a music you have to dance to, it's just music you could dance to." Ragtime was always an ambiguous form of music both in terms of composition and instrumentation. From its beginnings it was presented as music by and for the composer, written and published for the piano, but it was the "rag bands" of string and wind instruments that popularised ragtime works, adding their own touches to them. Those composers who also wrote and performed music of other genres (even if their fame rests on their rags), tended therefore to formalise their compositions through the filter of "learned" European music. Other musicians would then blend in more traditional themes, often inserting them polyphonically into the trio sections, or even adding their own embellishments to the melodic line. Early recordings and sheet music bear witness to the wide range of possibilities offered by these works. Any attempt to define the characteristics of ragtime, however, must take the piano into account and, in particular, the piano music that came out of Sedalia (Missouri) and Saint Louis, which gave us Scott Joplin, ragtime's leading exponent, and John Stark, the dedicated publisher who so successfully marketed his music.
It was Joplin who created the formal models that became fundamental in defining the genre with his pieces Maple Leaf Rag, a wonderful mix of tunes with popular references that follows the pattern A/A-B/B-A-C/C-D/D, and The Entertainer, where the use of counterpoint makes it "classical" in pace and schematic construction:
Introduction I A/A-B/B-A-C/C
Introduction II D/D
The journalist Monroe Rosenfeld, writing for a St Louis daily paper in 1903, described it as probably the best and most melodious work of recent times, and called it an unforgettable work of highly original character.
Thereafter, other talented and successful composers, such as Joseph Lamb (1887-1960), James Scott (1886- 1938) and Tom Turpin (1837-1922), followed the same models. While we can see in Joplin and his followers, therefore, an attempt to create a kind of art music that referenced learned European forms, the huge success of ragtime enabled many musicians and entertainers to use it as a virtuosic battleground, winning over audiences with their high-speed performances. Once again, Joplin took centre-stage as in response he tried to lay down the rules about ragtime in his publication A School of Ragtime (1908): "We wish to say here, that the "Joplin ragtime" is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering, and very often good players lose the effect entirely, by playing too fast. [The rags] are harmonized with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written, as it takes this and also the proper time divisions to complete the sense intended."
Any talk of the American ragtime phenomenon should make mention of the rôle of European musicians who, as teachers, composers and promoters, enabled the crossover between the music of the old world and the new syncopated idioms, rhythms born and developed in the melting-pot of American society, where music put the less well-off classes of white immigrants and the newly freed blacks on an equal footing, even if this was on the lower rungs of society as a whole.
The most significant aspect, and perhaps the least explored even today, is that of the spread of ragtime into Europe in the early twentieth century. Like all novelties from the States, ragtime and other kinds of syncopated dance music very soon became part of the repertoire of European musicians and, as a consequence, part of the customs of European society. Hence we find numerous cake-walks, fox-trots, shimmies, turkey-trots, donkey-trots, grizzly-bears, javas, peacock-glides, black bottoms and ragtimes (as well as markings such as "one-step", "two-step" and "quick-step") in the catalogues of the most divergent European composers at the turn of the century, from Debussy, Auric and Satie to Burian, Hindemith, Schulhoff, Weill and Martinů.
Why, then, did the mandolin become a ragtime instrument? The simplest answer is that the large numbers of Italian immigrants in American society resulted in the widespread adoption of typical Italian instruments, above all the mandolin. (The number of immigrants rose from 3000 in 1870 to 43,542 in 1885, and 221,479 in 1905: in New York alone there were a good 175,000 in 1900.) The American mandolin craze began in