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Joplin, Scott 1868–1917

Scott Joplin 18681917

Composer, pianist

Began to Articulate the Black Experience

Made Ragtime Premier Musical Trend

Penned Opera, Suffered Disappointment

Selected compositions

Selected discography

Sources

As Johann Strauss is to the waltz and John Philip Sousa is to the march, so is Scott Joplin to ragtime: its guru, chief champion, the figure most closely associated with its composition. It was Joplins short, hard-driving melodiesand the syncopated backbone he furnished themthat helped define the musical parameters of ragtime, a style that gave voice to the African American experience during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to David W. Eagle in the liner notes to Scott Joplin: Greatest Hits, Ragtime, a type of written piano music,was actually a hybrid of European and African musical traditions consisting of folk melodies (usually of black origin) and commercial music from minstrel showsoverlaid on West African cross-rhythms.

Sadly, for all his accomplishments in putting a new musical form on the map, Joplin spent his final years madly obsessed with a fruitless crusade to enter, if not conquer, another arena: opera, the staid, classical venue accepted by a white community that had for so long ridiculed ragtime as cheap, vulgar, and facile black music.

Many of the details of Joplins life, like much of his music, have been lost to history. He was born November 24,1868, in Texarkana, a small city straddling the border of Texas and Arkansas. Joplins father, Giles, was a railroad laborer who was born into slavery and obtained his freedom five years before his sons birth. Florence Givens Joplin was a freeborn black woman who worked as a laundress and cared for her children. Like many in the black community, the Joplins saw in music a rewarding tool of expression, and the talented family was sought out to perform at weddings, funerals, and parties.

Began to Articulate the Black Experience

Scott, whose first foray into the world of scales and half notes came on the guitar, discovered a richer lyrical agent in his neighbors piano. At first, Giles Joplin was concerned that music would sidetrack his son from a solid, wage-earning trade, but he soon saw the clear inventive genius in Scott, who, by the time he was 11, was playing and improvising with unbelievable smoothness. A local German musician, similarly entranced with Scott Joplins gift, gave the boy free lessons, teaching him the works of European composers, as well as the nuts and bolts of musical theory and harmony.

At a Glance

Born November 24, 1868, in Texarkana, AR; died April 1, 1917, in New York City; son of Giles (a railroad laborer) and Florence (a laundress; maiden name, Givens) Joplin; married twice, to Belle Hayden and Lottie Stokes. Education: Attended George R. Smith College for Negroes, Sedalia, MO.

Itinerant pianist, touring throughout United States; settled in Sedalia, MO, where he helped pioneer ragtime movement; played cornet at Worlds Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893; toured with male vocal octet, C. mid-1890s; published Maple Leaf Rag, 1899; became full-time composer and music teacher; later composed longer pieces, including the 1911 opera Treemonisha.

Awards: Posthumous Pulitzer Prize, 1976; commemorative postage stamp, 1983.

In a move not uncommon for young blacks at the time, Joplin left home in his early teens, working as an itinerant pianist at honky-tonks and salons of the Midwest, South, and Southwest. Although some revisionist historians have placed the birth of ragtime at the feet of white composers, such as Irving Berlin, who published Alexanders Ragtime Band in 1911, the true origin of the music was to be found in these low rent musical halls. In explaining the black roots of the musical form, Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis wrote in They All Played Ragtime, Piano ragtime was developed by the Negro from folk melodies and from the syncopations of the plantation banjos. As it grew, it carried its basic principle of displaced accents played against a regular meter to a very high degree of elaboration. The signature fast and frenetic pace of ragtime reflected the jubilant side of the black experiencecompared with the melancholy-heavy bluesand the music became, according to Blesh and Janis, Americas most original artistic creation.

In 1893 Joplin played cornet with a band at the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where musicians from throughout the country displayed for one another the regional variations of ragtime and where Joplin was encouraged by pianist Otis Saunders to write down his original compositions. Joplin left Chicago leading a male vocal octet, the repertoire of which included plantation medleys, popular songs of the day, and his own compositions. Ironically, Joplin questioned the staying power of ragtime, and his first two published pieces, A Picture of Her Face and Please Say You Will, were conventional, sentimental, waltz songs.

After touring, Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri, which would later become known as the Cradle of Classic Ragtime. Joplin attended music classes at the George R. Smith College for Negroes, played with local bands, and taught piano and composition to other ragtime composers, most notably Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden. This nurturing side would forever buoy Joplins reputation within the musical community. In several cases, to help the careers of his lesser known contemporaries, Joplin lent his big-money name to their compositions.

In 1899 Joplin issued his first piano rags, Original Rags and Maple Leaf Rag, the latter named for a social club where he often played. A white music publisher, John Stark, had heard Joplin playing the Maple Leaf and, though he was concerned that its technical difficulty exceeded even the grasp of its composer, he gave Joplin a $50 advance and a royalty contract that would bring Joplin one cent per copy sold. Such an arrangement was a wild departure from the norm, which netted composers no royalties and advances rarely surpassing $25. According to Peter Gammond in his book Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era, Joplin said after he had finished this tune, One day the Maple Leaf will make me King of Ragtime Composers. Although only about 400 copies were sold in the first year, it had sold nearly half a million copies by the end of 1909.

Made Ragtime Premier Musical Trend

With this financial cushion, Joplin was able to stop playing at the clubs and devote all his time to composition and teaching. Joplins prolific output, including Peacherine Rag, A Breeze from Alabama, Elite Syncopations, and The Entertainer, made ragtime the premier musical trend of the time, with Joplin the ingenious trendsetter. His compositionsglossed over by some white critics as the so-called music of brothelsshowcased his keen understanding of inner voices, chromatic harmonies, and the rich interrelationships of melody and rhythm. William J. Schafer and Johannes Riedel wrote in The Art of Ragtime: Form and Meaning of an Original Black American Art: The secret of Joplins ragtime is the subtle balance of polarities, continuity, and repetition of melody and rhythm, much the same combination of energy and lyricism as in the marches of his contemporary, John Philip Sousa.

Despite his material successes and the regal status bestowed on him by ragtime composers and aficionados, Joplin could not easily brush off the disparaging accent the white world gave the term rag; such condescension, according to Joplin, was a transparent means of discrediting the black music as an artless form of folk entertainment. He gave his compositions elegant names, such as The Chrysanthemum and Heliotrope Bouquet, capturing the lyrical mood and seriousness of classical music. To educate the advanced music student about the intricacies of ragtime, Joplin wrote a series of etudes, The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano, published in 1908, when schools promising the quick learning of the music were popping up across the country. John Rublowsky, writing in Black Music in America, quoted Joplins preface to the series: Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at hateful ragtime no longer passes for musical culture. To assist the amateur players in giving the Joplin Rags that weird and intoxicating effect intended by the composer is the object of this work.

But Joplin was not satisfied with the composition of unconnected, short pieces, and his wish to explore the cultural context and functions of ragtimein short, to explain the deeper meaning of ragtime to the white worldled to his Rag Time Dance. Published in 1902, it was conceived as a sort of ragtime ballet, combining folk dances of the period choreographed by Joplin, and a narrative written by him. Unable to find financial backers, Joplin put up his own money for an ensemble production of the piece. Although The Rag Time Dance proved Joplins ability to write in extended, musical themes, it did not have the unifying and didactic effects for which he had hoped.

Undeterred and still courting the kind of exposure he believed his music needed, Joplin penned the first ragtime opera, A Guest of Honor. Unfortunately, the opera, which was performed once in a test rehearsal to gauge public sentiment, was never published and was lost. It was apparently Joplins most inventive musical exercise, but, like The Rag Time Dance, its reception was a major disappointment to him. Blesh and Janis wrote, The fate of A Guest of Honor is the story of what might have been, for the time was right for syncopated opera. It was certainly time for the romantic-costume idea of light opera as epitomized by the sentimentalities of Victor Herbert to be superseded by something more American, and there is no doubt that America itself was ready for it and that Joplin was the man equipped to write it.

Penned Opera, Suffered Disappointment

But this would not be the last, nor the most consuming of Joplins failures. Ever driven to push his own musical limits and to break the shackles in which he believed the white world had bound him, Joplin spent the final years of his life composing and maneuvering to produce a full-fledged opera. Treemonisha is a fable, a folk story about an orphaned girl (the title character), who, by virtue of having an education, is chosen to raise her people above ignorance, superstition, and conjuration to enlightenment. In Treemonisha, Joplin found a forum for the exploration of history and politics, a piece that would never allow the seriousness of his music and of his intellect to be questioned.

With words, choreography, and music by Joplin, Treemonisha was not a ragtime opera, but instead a complex work borrowing the phraseology and themes of some of the popular music of the day: Gilbert and Sullivans sentimental show music, spirituals, plantation songs, brass band marches, and barber shop harmonies. Schafer and Riedel wrote that Treemonisha was Joplins greatest accomplishment as a composer, and that it, having been composed two decades before George Gershwins Porgy and Bess, served as the first demonstrably great American opera, for it speaks a genuine American musical idiom within the conventional forms of Western opera.

The world at that time, however, was not ready for Joplins operatic alchemy, in some respects because Joplins name, so closely associated with ragtime, had begun to fade from the popular mind as ragtime became absorbed by the derivative white tunes of Tin Pan Alley. There was a performance of Treemonisha in 1915, but without scenery, orchestra, costumes, or lighting, the piece that had been at the center of his musical and intellectual life for more than five years came across as thin and unconvincing. Some writers have suggested that when Joplin died in 1917, he did so brokenhearted, shattered that his entry into the most socially redeeming class of musicoperahad been a bust. The death certificate said that he had died of dementia paralytica-cerebral which had partly been brought on by syphilis, Gammond wrote, but it didnt add that it had been hastened by a violent addiction to Treemonisha.

Though Joplin died well after he had reached the heights of his popularity, his contributions to music, particularly in the popularization of an originally black musical form, have never been in question. The mesmerizing interplay of rhythm and melody influenced European composers Claude Debussy and Antonín Dvíák, and ragtime enjoyed a brief revival in the 1970s, when the film The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford and featuring Joplins song The Entertainer, reintroduced music lovers to Joplins playful brilliance.

The genius of Joplin was twofold, attested Blesh and Janis, the tyrannical creative urge and the vision. With the first alone, even had he been, perhaps, the greatest of all the ragtime players, his most perfectly constructed pieces, unscored, would today be one with all the others, lost with a lost time. But his vision was the sculptors, molding transitory vision into stones indestructibility. He was at once the one who makes and the one who saves. Through the labor of this one homeless itinerant the vast outcry of a whole dark generation can go on sounding as long as any music will sound.

Selected compositions

Stage

The Rag Time Dance, 1902.

Treemonisha (opera), 1911.

A Guest of Honor (opera).

Piano Rags

Original Rags, 1899.

Maple Leaf Rag, 1899.

Peacherine Rag, 1901.

A Breeze from Alabama, 1902.

Elite Syncopations, 1902.

The Entertainer, 1902.

Palm Leaf, 1903.

Weeping Willow, 1903.

The Chrysanthemum, 1904.

Eugenia, 1905.

Heliotrope Bouquet, 1907.

Nonpareil, 1907.

Fig Leaf Rag, 1908.

Country Club, 1909.

Stoptime Rag, 1910.

Felicity Rag, 1911.

Scott Joplins New Rag, 1912.

Kismet, 1913.

Magnetic Rag, 1914.

Reflection Rag, 1917.

Additional works for piano

Combination March, 1896.

Great Collision March, 1896.

Harmony Club Waltz, 1896.

Augustan Club Waltz, 1901.

Cleopha, 1902.

Binks Waltz, 1905.

Antoinette, 1906.

Solace, 1909.

Other (including waltzes)

A Picture of Her Face, 1895.

Please Say You Will, 1895.

I Am Thinking of My Pickaninny Days, 1901.

Little Black Baby, 1903.

Sarah Dear, 1905.

When Your Hair Is Like the Snow, 1907.

Also composer of The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano, 1908.

Selected discography

King of Ragtime Writers (From Classic Piano Rolls), Biograph, 1989.

Scott Joplin: Greatest Hits, RCA Victor, 1991.

Elite Syncopators: Classic Ragtime From Rare Piano Rolls, Biograph.

The Entertainer: Classic Ragtime From Rare Piano Rolls, Biograph.

Joplin: The Original Rags, 1896-1904, Zeta.

Scott Joplin, Biograph.

Ragtime, Volume 3: Early 1900s, Biograph.

Ragtime, Volume 4: The Entertainer, Biograph.

Sources

Books

Blesh, Rudi, and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime, Oak Publications, 1971.

Gammond, Peter, Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era, St. Martins, 1975.

Rublowsky, John, Black Music in America, Basic Books, 1971.

Schafer, William J., and Johannes Riedel, The Art of Ragtime: Form and Meaning of an Original Black American Art, Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

Periodicals

New York Times, December 1, 1991.

Additional information for this profile was taken from liner notes by David W. Eagle from Scott Joplin: Greatest Hits, RCA Victor, 1991.

Isaac Rosen

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Joplin, Scott

Scott Joplin

Composer, pianist

Articulated Black Experience

Made Ragtime Premiere Musical Trend

Penned Opera, Suffered Disappointment

Selected compositions

Selected discography

Sources

As Johann Strauss is to the waltz and John Philip Sousa is to the march, so is Scott Joplin to ragtime: its guru, chief champion, the figure most closely associated with its composition. It was Joplins short, hard-driving melodiesand the syncopated backbone he furnished them that helped define the musical parameters of ragtime, a style that gave voice to the African-American experience during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sadly, for all his accomplishments in putting a new musical form on the map, Joplin spent his final years madly obsessed with a fruitless crusade to enter, if not conquer, another arena: opera, the staid, classical venue accepted by a white community that had for so long ridiculed ragtime as cheap, vulgar, and facile black music.

Many of the details of Joplins life, like much of his music, have been lost to history. He was born November 24, 1868, in Texarkana, a small city straddling the border of Texas and Arkansas. Joplins father, Giles, was a railroad laborer who was born into slavery and obtained his freedom five years before his sons birth. Florence Givens Joplin was a freeborn black woman who worked as a laundress when not taking care of her children. Like many in the black community, the Joplins saw in music a rewarding tool of expression, and the talented family was sought out to perform at weddings, funerals, and parties. Scott, whose first foray into the world of scales and half notes came on the guitar, discovered a richer lyrical agent in his neighbors piano. At first, Giles Joplin was concerned that music would sidetrack his son from a solid, wage-earning trade, but he saw the clear inventive genius in Scott, who, by the time he was 11, was playing and improvising with unbelievable smoothness. A local German musician, similarly entranced with Scott Joplins gift, gave the boy free lessons, teaching the works of European composers, as well as the nuts and bolts of musical theory and harmony.

Articulated Black Experience

In a move not uncommon for young blacks at the time, Joplin left home in his early teens, working as an itinerant pianist at the honky-tonks and salons of the Midwest, South, and Southwest. Although some revisionist historians have placed the birth of ragtime at the feet of white composers, such as Irving Berlin, who published Alexanders Ragtime Band in 1911, the true origin of the music was to be found in these lowrent music halls. In explaining the black roots of the musical form, Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis wrote in They All Played Ragtime, Piano ragtime was developed by the Negro from folk melodies and from the

For the Record

Born November 24, 1868, in Texarkana, AR; died April 1, 1917, in New York City; son of Giles (a railroad laborer) and Florence (a laundress; maiden name, Givens) Joplin; married twice, to Belle Hayden and Lottie Stokes. Education : Attended George R. Smith College for Negroes, Sedalia, MO.

Itinerant pianist, touring throughout U.S.; settled in Sedalia, MO, where he helped pioneer ragtime movement; played comet at Worlds Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893; published Maple Leaf Rag, 1899; later composed longer pieces, including the 1911 opera Treemonisha.

Awards: Posthumous Pulitzer Prize, 1976; commemorative postage stamp, 1983.

syncopations of the plantation banjos. As it grew, it carried its basic principle of displaced accents played against a regular meter to a very high degree of elaboration. The signature fast and frenetic pace of ragtime reflected the jubilant side of the black experience compared with the melancholy-heavy bluesand the music became, according to Blesh and Janis, Americas most original artistic creation.

In 1893 Joplin played cornet with a band at the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where musicians from throughout the country displayed for one another the regional variations of ragtime and where Joplin was encouraged by pianist Otis Saunders to write down his original compositions. Joplin left Chicago leading a male vocal octet the repertoire of which included plantation medleys, popular songs of the day, and his own compositions. Ironically, Joplin questioned the staying power of ragtime, and his first two published pieces, A Picture of Her Face and Please Say You Will, were conventional, sentimental, waltz songs.

After touring, Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri, which would later become known as the Cradle of Classic Ragtime. Joplin attended music classes at the George R. Smith College for Negroes, played with local bands, and taught piano and composition to other ragtime composers, most notably Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden. This nurturing side would forever buoy Jop-lins reputation within the musical community. In several cases, to help the careers of his lesser-known contemporaries, Joplin lent his big-money name to their compositions.

In 1899 Joplin issued his first piano rags, Original Rags and Maple Leaf Rag, the latter named for a social club where he often played. A white music publisher, John Stark, had heard Joplin playing the Maple Leaf and, though he was concerned that its technical difficulty exceeded even the grasp of its composer, he gave Joplin a $50 advance and a royalty contract that would bring Joplin one cent per copy sold. Such an arrangement was a wild departure from the norm, which netted composers no royalties and advances rarely surpassing $25. According to Peter Gammond in his book Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era, Joplin said after he had finished this tune, One day the Maple Leaf will make me King of Ragtime Composers. Although only about 400 copies were sold in the first year, it had sold nearly half a million copies by the end of 1909.

Made Ragtime Premiere Musical Trend

With this financial cushion, Joplin was able to stop playing at the clubs and devote all his time to composition and teaching. Joplins prolific output, including Peacherine Rag, A Breeze From Alabama, Elite Syncopations, and The Entertainer, made ragtime the premiere musical trend of the time, with Joplin the ingenious trendsetter. His compositionsglossed over by some shallow-minded white critics as cheap, black musicshowcased his keen understanding of inner voices, chromatic harmonies, and the rich interrelationships of melody and rhythm. William J. Schafer and Johannes Riedel wrote in The Art of Ragtime: Form and Meaning of an Original Black American Art: The secret of Joplins ragtime is the subtle balance of polarities, continuity, and repetition of melody and rhythm, much the same combination of energy and lyricism as in the marches of his contemporary, John Philip Sousa.

Despite his material successes and the regal status bestowed on him by ragtime composers and aficionados, Joplin could not easily brush off the disparaging accent the white world gave the term rag; such condescension, according to Joplin, was a transparent means of discrediting the black music as an artless, folk entertainment. He gave his compositions elegant names, such as The Chrysanthemum and Heliotrope Bouquet, capturing the lyrical mood and seriousness of classical music. To educate the advanced music student about the intricacies of ragtime, Joplin wrote a series of études, The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano, published in 1908, when schools promising the quick learning of the music were popping up across the country. John Rublowsky, writing in Black Music in America, quoted Joplins preface: Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at hateful ragtime no longer passes for musical culture. To assist the amateur players in giving the Joplin Rags that weird and intoxicating effect intended by the composer is the object of this work.

But Joplin was not satisfied with the composition of unconnected, short pieces, and his wish to explore the cultural context and functions of ragtimein short, to explain the deeper meaning of ragtime to the white worldled to his Rag Time Dance. Published in 1902, it was conceived as a sort of ragtime ballet, combining folk dances of the period, choreographed by Joplin, and a narrative written by him. Unable to find financial backers, Joplin put up his own money for an ensemble production of the piece. Although The Rag Time Dance proved Joplins ability to write in extended, musical themes, it did not have the unifying and didactic effects for which he had hoped.

Undeterred and still courting the kind of exposure he believed his music needed, Joplin penned the first ragtime opera, A Guest of Honor. Unfortunately, the opera, which was performed once in a test rehearsal to gauge public sentiment, was never published and was lost. It was apparently Joplins most inventive musical exercise, but, like The Rag Time Dance, its reception was a major disappointment to him. Blesh and Janis wrote, The fate of A Guest of Honor is the story of what might have been, for the time was right for syncopated opera. It was certainly time for the romantic-costume idea of light opera as epitomized by the sentimentalities of Victor Herbert to be superseded by something more American, and there is no doubt that America itself was ready for it and that Joplin was the man equipped to write it.

Penned Opera, Suffered Disappointment

But this would not be the last, nor the most consuming of Joplins failures. Ever driven to push his own musical limits and to break the shackles in which he believed the white world had bound him, Joplin spent the final years of his life composing and maneuvering to produce a full-fledged opera. Treemonisha is a fable, a folk story about an orphaned girl (the title character), who, by virtue of having an education, is chosen to raise her people above ignorance, superstition, and conjuration to enlightenment. In Treemonisha, Joplin found a forum for the exploration of history and politics, a piece that would never allow the seriousness of his music and of his intellect to be questioned.

With words, choreography, and music by Joplin, Treemonisha was not a ragtime opera, but instead a complex work borrowing the phraseology and themes of some of the popular music of the day: Gilbert and Sullivan sentimental show music, spirituals, plantation songs, brass band marches, and barber shop harmonies. Schafer and Riedel wrote that Treemonisha was Joplins greatest accomplishment as a composer, and that it, having been composed two decades before George Gershwins Porgy and Bess, served as the first demonstrably great American opera, for it speaks a genuine American musical idiom within the conventional forms of Western opera.

The world at that time, however, was not ready for Joplins operatic alchemy, in some respects because Joplins name, so closely associated with ragtime, had begun to fade from the popular mind as ragtime became absorbed by the derivative, white tunes of Tin Pan Alley. There was a threadbare performance of Treemonisha in 1915, but without scenery, orchestra, costumes, or lighting, the piece that had been at the center of his musical and intellectual life for more than five years came across as thin and unconvincing. Some writers have suggested that when Joplin died in 1917, he did so brokenhearted, shattered that his entry into the most socially redeeming class of musicoperahad been a bust. The death certificate said that he had died of dementia paralytica-cerebral which had partly been brought on by syphilis, Gammond wrote, but it didnt add that it had been hastened by a violent addiction to Treemonisha.

Though Joplin died well after he had reached the heights of his popularity, his contributions to music, particularly in the popularization of an originally black musical form, have never been in question. The mesmerizing interplay of rhythm and melody influenced European composers Claude Debussy and Antonín Dvorak, and ragtime enjoyed a brief revival in the 1970s, when the film The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford and featuring Joplins song The Entertainer, reintroduced music lovers to Joplins playful brilliance.

The genius of Joplin was twofold, attested Blesh and Janis, the tyrannical creative urge and the vision. With the first alone, even had he been, perhaps, the greatest of all the ragtime players, his most perfectly constructed pieces, unscored, would today be one with all the others, lost with a lost time. But his vision was the sculptors, molding transitory vision into stones indestructibility. He was at once the one who makes and the one who saves. Through the labor of this one homeless itinerant the vast outcry of a whole dark generation can go on sounding as long as any music will sound.

Selected compositions

Stage

The Rag Time Dance, 1902.

Treemonisha (opera), 1911.

A Guest of Honor (opera).

Piano rags

Maple Leaf Rag, 1899.

Original Rags, 1899.

Peacherine Rag, 1901.

A Breeze From Alabama, 1902.

Elite Syncopations, 1902.

The Entertainer, 1902.

Palm Leaf, 1903.

Weeping Willow, 1903.

The Chrysanthemum, 1904.

Eugenia, 1905.

Heliotrope Bouquet, 1907.

Nonpareil, 1907.

Fig Leaf Rag, 1908.

Country Club, 1909.

Stoptime Rag, 1910.

Felicity Rag, 1911.

Scott Joplins New Rag, 1912.

Kismet, 1913.

Magnetic Rag, 1914.

Reflection Rag, 1917.

Additional works for piano

Combination March, 1896.

Great Collision March, 1896.

Harmony Club Waltz, 1896.

Augustan Club Waltz, 1901.

Cleopha, 1902.

Binks Waltz, 1905.

Antoinette, 1906.

Solace, 1909.

Other

A Picture of Her Face, 1895.

Please Say You Will, 1895.

I Am Thinking of My Pickaninny Days, 1901.

Little Black Baby, 1903.

Sarah Dear, 1905.

When Your Hair Is Like the Snow, 1907.

Pine Apple Rag, 1910.

Also composer of The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano, 1908.

Selected discography

King of Ragtime Writers (From Classic Piano Rolls), Biograph, 1989.

Elite Syncopators: Classic Ragtime From Rare Piano Rolls, Biograph.

The Entertainer: Classic Ragtime From Rare Piano Rolls, Biograph.

Joplin: The Original Rags, 1896-1904, Zeta.

Scott Joplin, Biograph.

Ragtime, Volume 3: Early 1900s, Biograph.

Ragtime, Volume 4: The Entertainer, Biograph.

Sources

Books

Blesh, Rudi, and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime, Oak Publications, 1971.

Gammond, Peter, Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era, St. Martins, 1975.

Rublowsky, John, Black Music in America, Basic Books, 1971.

Schafer, William J., and Johannes Riedel, The Art of Ragtime: Form and Meaning of an Original Black American Art, Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

Periodicals

New York Times, December 1, 1991.

Isaac Rosen

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Joplin, Scott." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. 11 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Joplin, Scott." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 11, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/joplin-scott

"Joplin, Scott." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved September 11, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/joplin-scott

Learn more about citation styles

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Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin

While Scott Joplin (1868-1917) is most noted for developing ragtime music, he also wrote music for ballet and opera.

As Johann Strauss is to the waltz and John Philip Sousa is to the march, so is Scott Joplin to ragtime: its guru, chief champion, the figure most closely associated with its composition. It was Joplin's short, hard-driving melodies—and the syncopated backbone he furnished them—that helped define the musical parameters of ragtime, a style that gave voice to the African American experience during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. According to David W. Eagle in the liner notes to Scott Joplin: Greatest Hits, "Ragtime, a type of written piano music, … was actually a hybrid of European and African musical traditions" consisting of "folk melodies (usually of black origin) and commercial music from minstrel shows … overlaid on West African cross-rhythms."

Sadly, for all his accomplishments in putting a new musical form on the map, Joplin spent his final years madly obsessed with a fruitless crusade to enter, if not conquer, another arena: opera, the staid, classical venue accepted by a white community that had for so long ridiculed ragtime as cheap, vulgar, and facile black music.

Many of the details of Joplin's life, like much of his music, have been lost to history. He was born November 24, 1868, in Texarkana, a small city straddling the border of Texas and Arkansas. Joplin's father, Giles, was a railroad laborer who was born into slavery and obtained his freedom five years before his son's birth. Florence Givens Joplin was a freeborn black woman who worked as a laundress and cared for her children. Like many in the black community, the Joplins saw in music a rewarding tool of expression, and the talented family was sought out to perform at weddings, funerals, and parties.

Scott, whose first foray into the world of scales and half notes came on the guitar, discovered a richer lyrical agent in his neighbor's piano. At first, Giles Joplin was concerned that music would sidetrack his son from a solid, wage-earning trade, but he soon saw the clear inventive genius in Scott, who, by the time he was 11, was playing and improvising with unbelievable smoothness. A local German musician, similarly entranced with Scott Joplin's gift, gave the boy free lessons, teaching him the works of European composers, as well as the nuts and bolts of musical theory and harmony.

Articulated Black Experience

In a move not uncommon for young blacks at the time, Joplin left home in his early teens, working as an itinerant pianist at honky-tonks and salons of the Midwest, South, and Southwest. Although some revisionist historians have placed the birth of ragtime at the feet of white composers, such as Irving Berlin, who published "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, the true origin of the music was to be found in these low rent musical halls. In explaining the black roots of the musical form, Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis wrote in They All Played Ragtime, "Piano ragtime was developed by the Negro from folk melodies and from the syncopations of the plantation banjos. As it grew, it carried its basic principle of displaced accents played against a regular meter to a very high degree of elaboration." The signature fast and frenetic pace of ragtime reflected the jubilant side of the black experience—compared with the melancholy-heavy blues—and the music became, according to Blesh and Janis, America's "most original artistic creation."

In 1893 Joplin played cornet with a band at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where musicians from throughout the country displayed for one another the regional variations of ragtime and where Joplin was encouraged by pianist Otis Saunders to write down his original compositions. Joplin left Chicago leading a male vocal octet, the repertoire of which included plantation medleys, popular songs of the day, and his own compositions. Ironically, Joplin questioned the staying power of ragtime, and his first two published pieces, "A Picture of Her Face" and "Please Say You Will," were conventional, sentimental, waltz songs.

After touring, Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri, which would later become known as the "Cradle of Classic Ragtime." Joplin attended music classes at the George R. Smith College for Negroes, played with local bands, and taught piano and composition to other ragtime composers, most notably Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden. This nurturing side would forever buoy Joplin's reputation within the musical community. In several cases, to help the careers of his lesser known contemporaries, Joplin lent his big-money name to their compositions.

In 1899 Joplin issued his first piano rags, "Original Rags" and "Maple Leaf Rag," the latter named for a social club where he often played. A white music publisher, John Stark, had heard Joplin playing the "Maple Leaf" and, though he was concerned that its technical difficulty exceeded even the grasp of its composer, he gave Joplin a $50 advance and a royalty contract that would bring Joplin one cent per copy sold. Such an arrangement was a wild departure from the norm, which netted composers no royalties and advances rarely surpassing $25. According to Peter Gammond in his book Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era, Joplin said after he had finished this tune, "One day the 'Maple Leaf' will make me King of Ragtime Composers." Although only about 400 copies were sold in the first year, it had sold nearly half a million copies by the end of 1909.

Made Ragtime Premier Musical Trend

With this financial cushion, Joplin was able to stop playing at the clubs and devote all his time to composition and teaching. Joplin's prolific output, including "Peacherine Rag," "A Breeze from Alabama," "Elite Syncopations," and "The Entertainer," made ragtime the premier musical trend of the time, with Joplin the ingenious trendsetter. His compositions—glossed over by some shallow-minded white critics as the so-called "music of brothels"—showcased his keen understanding of inner voices, chromatic harmonies, and the rich interrelationships of melody and rhythm. William J. Schafer and Johannes Riedel wrote in The Art of Ragtime: Form and Meaning of an Original Black American Art: "The secret of Joplin's ragtime is the subtle balance of polarities, continuity, and repetition of melody and rhythm, much the same combination of energy and lyricism as in the marches of his contemporary, John Philip Sousa."

Despite his material successes and the regal status bestowed on him by ragtime composers and aficionados, Joplin could not easily brush off the disparaging accent the white world gave the term "rag" such condescension, according to Joplin, was a transparent means of discrediting the black music as an artless form of folk entertainment. He gave his compositions elegant names, such as "The Chrysanthemum" and "Heliotrope Bouquet," capturing the lyrical mood and seriousness of classical music. To educate the advanced music student about the intricacies of ragtime, Joplin wrote a series of études, The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano, published in 1908, when schools promising the quick learning of the music were popping up across the country. John Rublowsky, writing in Black Music in America, quoted Joplin's preface to the series: "Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at 'hateful ragtime' no longer passes for musical culture. To assist the amateur players in giving the 'Joplin Rags' that weird and intoxicating effect intended by the composer is the object of this work."

But Joplin was not satisfied with the composition of unconnected, short pieces, and his wish to explore the cultural context and functions of ragtime—in short, to explain the deeper meaning of ragtime to the white world— led to his Rag Time Dance. Published in 1902, it was conceived as a sort of ragtime ballet, combining folk dances of the period choreographed by Joplin, and a narrative written by him. Unable to find financial backers, Joplin put up his own money for an ensemble production of the piece. Although The Rag Time Dance proved Joplin's ability to write in extended, musical themes, it did not have the unifying and didactic effects for which he had hoped.

Undeterred and still courting the kind of exposure he believed his music needed, Joplin penned the first ragtime opera, A Guest of Honor. Unfortunately, the opera, which was performed once in a test rehearsal to gauge public sentiment, was never published and was lost. It was apparently Joplin's most inventive musical exercise, but, like The Rag Time Dance, its reception was a major disappointment to him. Blesh and Janis wrote, "The fate of A Guest of Honor is the story of what might have been, for the time was right for syncopated opera. It was certainly time for the romantic-costume idea of light opera as epitomized by the sentimentalities of Victor Herbert to be superseded by something more American, and there is no doubt that America itself was ready for it and that Joplin was the man equipped to write it."

Penned Opera, Suffered Disappointment

But this would be not be the last, nor the most consuming of Joplin's failures. Ever driven to push his own musical limits and to break the shackles in which he believed the white world had bound him, Joplin spent the final years of his life composing and maneuvering to produce a full-fledged opera. Treemonisha is a fable, a folk story about an orphaned girl (the title character), who, by virtue of having an education, is chosen to raise her people above ignorance, superstition, and conjuration to enlightenment. In Treemonisha, Joplin found a forum for the exploration of history and politics, a piece that would never allow the seriousness of his music and of his intellect to be questioned.

With words, choreography, and music by Joplin, Treemonisha was not a ragtime opera, but instead a complex work borrowing the phraseology and themes of some of the popular music of the day: Gilbert and Sullivan's sentimental show music, spirituals, plantation songs, brass band marches, and barber shop harmonies. Schafer and Riedel wrote that Treemonisha was Joplin's "greatest accomplishment as a composer," and that it, having been composed two decades before George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, served as "the first demonstrably great American opera, for it speaks a genuine American musical idiom within the conventional forms of Western opera."

The world at that time, however, was not ready for Joplin's operatic alchemy, in some respects because Joplin's name, so closely associated with ragtime, had begun to fade from the popular mind as ragtime became absorbed by the derivative white tunes of Tin Pan Alley. There was a threadbare performance of Treemonisha in 1915, but without scenery, orchestra, costumes, or lighting, the piece that had been at the center of his musical and intellectual life for more than five years came across as thin and unconvincing. Some writers have suggested that when Joplin died in 1917, he did so brokenhearted, shattered that his entry into the most socially redeeming class of music—opera—had been a bust. "The death certificate said that he had died of 'dementia paralytica-cerebral' which had partly been brought on by syphilis," Gammond wrote, "but it didn't add that it had been hastened by a violent addiction to Treemonisha."

Though Joplin died well after he had reached the heights of his popularity, his contributions to music, particularly in the popularization of an originally black musical form, have never been in question. The mesmerizing interplay of rhythm and melody influenced European composers Claude Debussy and Antonín Dvorák, and ragtime enjoyed a brief revival in the 1970s, when the film The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford and featuring Joplin's song "The Entertainer," reintroduced music lovers to Joplin's playful brilliance.

"The genius of Joplin was twofold," attested Blesh and Janis, "the tyrannical creative urge and the vision. With the first alone, even had he been, perhaps, the greatest of all the ragtime players, his most perfectly constructed pieces, unscored, would today be one with all the others, lost with a lost time. But his vision was the sculptor's, molding transitory vision into stone's indestructibility. He was at once the one who makes and the one who saves. Through the labor of this one 'homeless itinerant' the vast outcry of a whole dark generation can go on sounding as long as any music will sound."

Further Reading

Blesh, Rudi, and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime, Oak Publications, 1971.

Gammond, Peter, Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era, St. Martin's, 1975.

Rublowsky, John, Black Music in America, Basic Books, 1971.

Schafer, William J., and Johannes Riedel, The Art of Ragtime: Form and Meaning of an Original Black American Art, Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

New York Times, December 1, 1991.

Additional information for this profile was taken from liner notes by David W. Eagle to Scott Joplin: Greatest Hits, RCA Victor, 1991. □

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Joplin, Scott

Scott Joplin (jŏp´lĬn), 1868–1917, American ragtime pianist and composer, b. Texarkana, Tex. Self-taught, Joplin left home in his early teens to seek his fortune in music. He lived in St. Louis (1885–93), playing in saloons and bordellos. In 1894 he moved to Sedalia, Mo., and played second cornet in a local band. For the next two years Joplin toured with a vocal ensemble he had formed and made his first efforts at composing ragtime. When the group disbanded (1896), he returned to Sedalia, where he stayed about four years. During this time he studied music at George Smith College, an educational institution for blacks sponsored by the Methodist Church.

In 1899, Joplin published the "Maple Leaf Rag," and its success was instantaneous. However, his next two major efforts, a folk ballet titled Rag Time Dance (1902) and a ragtime opera called A Guest of Honor (never published) were failures. Joplin continued to write ragtime music and moved (1909) to New York City, where he had considerable success until 1915, when at his own expense he produced a concert version of a second ragtime opera, Treemonisha (1911), a racial and spiritual parable that failed to gain recognition. This failure and the declining interest in ragtime are thought to have affected his personality, which became moody and temperamental. In 1916 he was confined to the Manhattan State Hospital, where he died the following year.

Joplin's rags were highly innovative, characterized by a lyricism and suppleness that elevated ragtime from honky-tonk piano music to a serious art form. Some of his compositions are "The Entertainer" (1902), "Rose Leaf Rag" (1907), "Gladiolus Rag" (1907), "Fig Leaf Rag" (1908), and "Magnetic Rag" (1914). A revival of interest in ragtime occurred in the 1970s. Several of Joplin's rags were used as background music for the Hollywood film The Sting (1973), and a Joplin Festival was held at Sedalia in 1974.

See R. Blesh and H. Janis, They All Played Ragtime (rev. ed. 1966); P. Gammond, Scott Joplin and the Ragtime Era (1975); J. Haskins and K. Benson, Scott Joplin (1978); E. A. Berlin, King of Ragtime (1994).

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Joplin, Scott

Joplin, Scott (b nr. Marshall, Texas, ?1868; d NY, 1917). Black Amer. composer and ragtime pianist. Played pf. in brothels of St Louis and Chicago. Formed Scott Joplin Ragtime Opera Co. 1903 to perf. his ragtime opera A Guest of Honour. Settled in NY, 1907. Pf. rags incl. Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer, and Wall Street Rag. Wrote 3-act opera, Treemonisha (1908–11, orchestrated 1915). It received a single perf. without scenery in 1915 and its failure contributed largely to the composer's death. Revival of popular enthusiasm for Joplin's mus. in mid–1970s due mainly to efforts of Amer. pianist and musicologist Joshua Rifkin. Treemonisha was first staged Atlanta 1972 (orig. orch. is lost). Posthumous Pulitzer Prize 1976.

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Joplin, Scott

Joplin, Scott (1868–1917) US composer. He wrote ragtime piano music, such as Maple Leaf Rag (1900) and The Entertainer (1902), and the opera Treemonisha (1911).

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Joplin, Scott

Joplin, Scott

c. 1867
April 1, 1917


Born in eastern Texas, some 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of present-day Texarkana, to an ex-slave father and a freeborn mother, ragtime composer Joplin rose from humble circumstances to be widely regarded as the "King of Ragtime Composers." The frequently cited birth date of November 24, 1868, is incorrect; census records and his death certificate show that he was born between June 1, 1867, and mid-January, 1868.

In the early years of his career he worked with minstrel companies and vocal quartets, in bands as a cornetist, and as a pianist. His earliest published compositions (18951896) were conventional songs and marches. In 1894 he settled in Sedalia, Missouri, where he attended the George R. Smith College. His "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899), which memorializes a black social club in Sedalia, became the most popular piano rag of the era. By 1901 he was famous and moved to St. Louis, where he worked primarily as a composer.

Despite his success in ragtime, he wanted to compose for the theater. In 1903 he formed a company to stage his first opera, A Guest of Honor (now lost). He started on a tour through midwestern states in August 1903, but the box office receipts were stolen after an early performance. Out of money, he was unable to pay the troupe's boardinghouse bill and was forced to abandon his property, including the opera score, and he terminated the tour. He returned to St. Louis and resumed composing piano rags. In 1907 he moved to New York, where major music publishers were eager to issue his rags, but he still aspired to be a "serious" composer. In 1911 he completed and self-published his second opera, Treemonisha, in which he expressed the view that his race's problems were exacerbated by ignorance and superstition and could be overcome by education. He never succeeded in mounting a full production of this work.

Despite his efforts with larger musical forms, Joplin is today revered for his piano rags, these being the most sophisticated examples of the genre. His published output includes fifty-two piano pieces, of which forty-two are rags (including seven collaborations with younger colleagues); twelve songs; one instructional piece; and one opera. Several songs, rags, a symphony, and several stage workshis first opera, a musical, and a vaudevillewere never published and are lost.

A Joplin revival began in late 1970 when Nonesuch Records, a classical music label, issued a recording of Joplin rags played by Joshua Rifkin. For the record industry, this recording gave Joplin the status of a classical composer. This status was enhanced a year later when the New York Public Library issued the two-volume Collected Works of Scott Joplin. Thereafter, a number of classical concert artists included Joplin's music in their recitals. In 1972 his opera Treemonisha received its first full performance, staged in Atlanta in conjunction with an Afro-American Music Workshop at Morehouse College, and in 1975 the opera reached Broadway. (Joplin's orchestration is lost; there have been three modern orchestrations of the workby T. J. Anderson, William Bolcom, and Gunther Schuller.) In 1974 the award-winning movie The Sting used several Joplin rags in its musical score, bringing Joplin to the attention of an even wider public. "The Entertainer" (1902), the film's main theme, became one of the most popular pieces of the mid-1970s. Further recognition of Joplin as an artist came in 1976 with a special Pulitzer Prize and in 1983 with a U.S. postage stamp bearing his image.

See also Opera; Musical Theater; Ragtime

Bibliography

Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Haskins, James, and Kathleen Benson. Scott Joplin. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978.

Ping-Robbins, Nancy R. Scott Joplin: A Guide to Research. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1998.

edward a. berlin (1996)
Updated bibliography

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Joplin, Scott

Scott Joplin

BORN: November 24, 1868 • Linden, Texas

DIED: April 1, 1917 • New York, New York

Composer

Scott Joplin was once one of America's most popular composers. By his death at the age of forty-nine, he had spent years as the "King of Ragtime." Rag is a style of music based on complicated rhythms. The fast-paced music has its roots in African American folk traditions, but Joplin created a craze for ragtime when he played it publicly in bars and honky-tonks (rundown dance halls). More than mere music, Joplin's compositions came to represent the African American heritage and experiences during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

"When I'm dead twenty-five years, people are going to begin to recognize me."

Develops musical ability

Scott Joplin was born to Jiles and Florence Joplin on November 24, 1868. His father, a former slave, was a laborer. Scott inherited his musical ability from his father. Around the age of seven, Joplin's family moved to Texarkana, Arkansas (on the Texas-Arkansas border). During this time, Joplin had already proved himself a natural talent on the banjo and had begun experimenting on the piano. The instrument was owned by a lawyer for whom Joplin's mother cleaned house. Joplin began taking piano lessons at the age of eleven from a tutor named Julius Weiss (1814–1898). The German music teacher worked as a tutor for the same family that employed Joplin's mother.

Details of Joplin's teen years are not completely known. He left home in his early teens and attended high school in Sedalia, Missouri. Why he moved or if he graduated is unknown and among the mysteries that characterize the composer's life as a young adult. In 1891, Joplin returned to Texarkana and joined a minstrel troupe (a band of traveling musicians). One of the highlights of his early career was his participation in a band that played at the popular Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago, Illinois. While performing at the fair, where countries and cultures from all over the world exhibited their best, Joplin first heard the unique sounds of ragtime.

He spent the early 1890s traveling with his minstrel troupe, the Texas Medley Quartette. His travels took him back to Sedalia, where he played two honky-tonks on a regular basis: The Maple Leaf and the Black 400 Club. During those years, Joplin studied music formally at George R. Smith College in Sedalia.

Becomes a published composer

Joplin's first published compositions appeared in 1895. His first two pieces were waltzes entitled "Please Say You Will" and "A Picture of Her Face." "Combination March," "Harmony Club Waltz," and "Great Collision March," all published in 1896, were not rags, but they helped cement his reputation as a solid composer.

Joplin's first rag, "Original Rags," was published in 1898. The following year, he published the most famous rag of all time. Named after a favorite honky-tonk at which he liked to play, "Maple Leaf Rag" sold four hundred copies in its first year of publication. Joplin hired a lawyer to help him negotiate a deal with music publisher John Stilwell Stark (1841–1927). The final contract gave Joplin one penny for each copy of "Maple Leaf Rag" sold. This arrangement was in effect for all of the composer's life and was one of the earliest examples of a musician being paid royalties, or particular amounts of money for each product sold. The usual contract during that time paid composers $25 or less per published piece. By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Joplin had sold almost half a million copies of the popular rag. Healthy sales of the song continued throughout the next twenty years.

That same year, Joplin wrote what can only be described as a ragtime ballet that incorporated folk dances choreographed by him as well as a narrative written by him. Rag Time Dance was performed at the Black Club 400 in 1899, but it was not published until 1902. It proved Joplin's ability to write longer pieces. The ballet never caught on with the public, however, and Joplin returned to writing rags.

The entertainer

Joplin married Belle Hayden in 1901 and the newlyweds moved to St. Louis, Missouri. There the composer established the Scott Joplin Opera Company, a business that reflected Joplin's lifelong fascination with breaking into opera. Despite his instant success with ragtime, Joplin was forever dismayed by the perception of upper-class, white society that ragtime was a tasteless form of "black" music. Joplin believed that if he could find success in opera, a music form long respected by upper-class whites, he would be taken seriously as a composer. He had single-handedly put rag-time on the map of American music, but that success was never enough for him.

Joplin composed twenty-seven rags within the first decade of the twentieth century. One of those rags, "The Entertainer," eventually became the theme song for a 1973 film called The Sting, starring Robert Redford (1936–) and Paul Newman (1925–). The movie was a box-office success, and Joplin's rag became one of the nation's most popular tunes. For many younger Americans, it was their introduction to Joplin's music. The tune was heard everywhere from radios to rock concerts, as artists performed their own versions of the fast-moving song. In 1976, the Pulitzer Committee awarded Joplin a posthumous (post-death) award for his contribution to American music.

In 1903, Joplin's unhappy marriage to Belle ended as his first opera, A Guest of Honor, was published. In order for the opera to receive national attention, Joplin's company put together a troupe of thirty performers and scheduled a tour that included performances in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois. According to Edward Berlin, who wrote a Joplin biography for the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation Web site, someone working for the touring company stole a great deal of money, leaving Joplin unable to pay the performers for their work or the boarding house for its hospitality. In addition to money, the score (sheet music) of the opera was stolen, and the opera never enjoyed more than a rehearsal. The score never was recovered and remains a lost piece of music in the twenty-first century.

Another opera

After the opera failed, Joplin took a few months off to travel. In Chicago, he met and fell in love with nineteen-year-old Freddie Alexander. Joplin wrote and published a rag titled "Chrysanthemum" in his new love's honor in 1904. He married her that same year. The marriage was doomed, however, when Joplin's new wife succumbed to pneumonia at the age of twenty. The two had been married for only ten weeks, and those weeks had been spent traveling so that Joplin could perform concerts. Ironically, the couple was in Sedalia, where Joplin had gotten his first big break in music, when Freddie died. The broken-hearted composer never returned to Sedalia again.

Never having fully recovered from the extensive financial loss of his opera, Joplin spent the next few years mostly in St. Louis, playing piano in bars and saloons. These jobs paid very little money, and his financial situation worsened. He continued to publish rags, but it was the hope of publishing yet another opera—in his continuing attempt to be accepted into white society—that inspired Joplin to work.

He traveled to New York that year, hoping to secure financial backing for a new opera he had written. This one was called Treemonisha, and it was not a ragtime opera. It was a folk tale about a young orphan girl named Treemonisha. Because she is educated, she is chosen to move her people beyond ignorance and into enlightenment. Joplin wrote the music and words as well as choreographed the dance.

Although some music historians consider Treemonisha to be the first great American opera because of its blend of American music with conventional opera techniques, society at the time did not share that opinion. Joplin's name was associated with ragtime, and that kind of music no longer enjoyed the popularity it once had. A few songs from the opera were performed in separate productions in 1913 and 1915, but the opera as a whole performance never materialized except for one production, which Joplin produced. Owing to a lack of funding, the opera was performed without scenery, costumes, or a symphony. Joplin accompanied the actors on the piano.

Final curtain call

Joplin married for the third and final time in 1907. Having settled in New York, Lottie Stokes and Joplin formed a husband-and-wife publishing company in 1913. Over the next two years, Joplin wrote several more musical pieces, including rags, a symphony, and even a vaudeville (song-and-dance) act. None of these pieces were ever published, and the manuscripts disappeared.

Joplin began feeling ill. By 1916, he suffered from the physical and mental deterioration of syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that can gradually rob its victims of their sight, hearing, and memory loss. It also can lead to mental illness and other neurological disorders. At the time, there was no effective treatment for syphilis. Joplin died in a mental hospital on April 1, 1917.

According to Berlin's biography of the composer, Joplin was intelligent and quiet, willing to volunteer his time to help aspiring musicians. His interests outside music were few. Despite his great popularity during ragtime's heyday, he was never satisfied because he believed he had not been allowed to reach his full potential. As a pianist, he was considered to be of average talent. Although he played other instruments and sang, he did so with little enthusiasm. Joplin had perfect pitch, meaning he could sing musical notes with perfect accuracy even without musical accompaniment. This talent held little interest for him; Joplin was, above all else, a composer.

For More Information

BOOKS

Bankston, John. The Life and Times of Scott Joplin. Hockessin, DE: Mitchell Lane Publishers, 2005.

Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Curtis, Susan. Dancing to a Black Man's Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Joplin, Scott. Joplin Gold. London, England: Chester Music, 2004.

Rosen, Isaac. "Scott Joplin." In Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale, 1994.

WEB SITES

Albrecht, Theodore. "Joplin, Scott." The Handbook of Texas Online.http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/JJ/fjo70.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).

Berlin, Edward A. "A Biography of Scott Joplin." The Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation.http://www.scottjoplin.org/biography.htm (accessed on September 3, 2006).

Due, Tananarive. "Excerpt: 'Joplin's Ghost."' National Public Radio.http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5346117 (accessed on September 3, 2006).

Levang, Rex. "100 Years of the Maple Leaf Rag." Minnesota Public Radio.http://music.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/9905_ragtime/index.shtml (accessed on September 3, 2006).

Moss, Charles K. "Scott Joplin: King of Ragtime." Charles K. Moss Piano Studio.http://www.carolinaclassical.com/joplin/index.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).

"The Music of Scott Joplin." Geocities.com.http://www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Bayou/9694/music.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).

"Scott Joplin." Essentials of Music.http://www.essentialsofmusic.com/composer/joplin.html (accessed on September 3, 2006).

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Joplin, Scott

Joplin, Scott

Joplin, Scott, preeminent American ragtime composer; b. in Texarkana, Tex., Nov. 24, 1868; d. N.Y., April 1, 1917. At a time when ragtime was at its popular peak, Joplin was its foremost practitioner. His piano rags, such as “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” were played throughout the U.S. and Europe. He aspired to a greater musical respectability, however, and worked for much of his life on more ambitious compositions, notably his opera, Treemonisha. His reputation was in eclipse during the decades immediately after his death, but by the 1970s his music had regained its currency.

Joplin’s father, Giles Joplin, was a freed slave from N.C. who had moved to Tex. in his teens and become a farm laborer. His mother, Florence Givens, from Ky., was freeborn. By 1880 the family had moved to Texarkana, where his father found work on the railroad. After his parents separated in the early 1880s, his mother supported the family as a domestic. Both parents were musical: his father played the violin; his mother played the banjo and sang. Joplin was playing banjo by the age of seven, and he studied music with Mag Washington, J.C. Johnson, and, probably, a German named Julius Weiss who introduced him to European classical music. He also seems to have had some secondary schooling, though education for African-Americans was restricted at the time.

Joplin gained local renown as a musician. About 1885 he formed a vocal quartet, which sang professionally in the area for several years. He also played piano locally and taught guitar and mandolin. He then left Texarkana to make his living as a traveling pianist. Eventually he settled in St. Louis. In 1893 he traveled to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair remembered for quickening the emergence of ragtime as a popular genre, and he formed a band there in which he played cornet. He returned to St. Louis after the fair, and in 1894 moved to Sedalia, Mo., where he established, with his brothers Robert and Will, The Texas Medley Quartette (actually an octet), which toured as far as Syracuse, N.Y. He briefly joined The Queen City Cornet Band as first cornetist, then formed his own six-piece band to play dances while also continuing to play solo in clubs and brothels. He enrolled at the Smith Coll. of Music in Sedalia and studied composition.

After publishing a few works with other publishers, Joplin began a long association with a Sedalia-based music-store owner and music publisher, John Stark, who brought out “Maple Leaf Rag,” for which Stark paid a royalty of one cent per copy of sheet music, an unusually generous arrangement at a time when most compositions by African-American artists were sold outright for small fees. Joplin agreed to a five-year exclusive contract with Stark, though he violated it by publishing works with others.

Though “Maple Leaf Rag,” which became one of the most popular rags of the time, demonstrated his mastery of the form, Joplin always aspired to write more ambitious works. In 1899 he formed the Scott Joplin Drama Company and rented the Woods Opera House in Sedalia to stage a performance of his ballet (actually a work for singing narrator and dancers), The Ragtime Dance, apparently in an effort to convince Stark to publish it. But Stark initially declined. Joplin did find encouragement, however, when he met and began to study with German music teacher Alfred Ernst, who was the conductor of The St. Louis Choral Symphony Society, in late 1900 or early 1901.

Joplin moved back to St. Louis in the spring of 1901 with Belle (probably Belle Jones, the widow of his sometime collaborator Scott Hayden’s brother Joe), who had become his wife, though it is not clear whether they were legally married. The couple separated in 1903, shortly after the death of an infant daughter. Joplin married Freddie Alexander in Little Rock, Ark., on June 14, 1904, but she died three months later. He seems to have entered into a common- law marriage with Lottie Stokes in N.Y. sometime between 1911 and 1913.

Joplin staged The Ragtime Dance a second time in late 1901, again without convincing Stark to publish it. But the increasing popularity of his rags eventually caused the publisher to relent, and the ballet finally was published the following year. While continuing to write notable rags such as “The Entertainer” and “Elite Syncopations,” he set to work on an opera, A Guest of Honor, which seems to have been given a tryout in St. Louis in August 1903. He also took it on tour, but this was a failure, and his opera company devolved into a minstrel show before disbanding completely. (Although Joplin wrote to the Library of Congress to apply for a copyright for the opera on Feb. 16, 1903, no score has ever been found.)

For the next four years, Joplin lived variously in Chicago, St. Louis, and Sedalia, publishing his songs, rags, and other piano works, and traveling around the Midwest as a touring pianist. In the summer of 1907 he moved permanently to N.Y., where Stark, still his main publisher, had already relocated, and where the major music publishers were located. He published an instruction manual, The School of Ragtime, in 1908. While continuing to tour and to write popular rags, he worked on a second opera, Treemonisha, which he was forced to publish himself after established publishers rejected it. He managed to arrange a single informal performance in Harlem, probably in the fall of 1911, but this did not lead to a full-scale production.

As ragtime declined in popularity, Joplin found it more difficult to work as a composer and musician, and he turned increasingly to teaching music to support himself. By late 1915 he had begun to exhibit the symptoms of dementia paralytica, a late manifestation of terminal syphilis. His health declined over the next year-and-a-half until his death.

During Joplin’s lifetime, the popularity of his work was reflected in the developing recording industry. In 1907 the U.S. Marine Band released a successful recording of “Maple Leaf Rag” on Victor, and Vess Ossman recorded a banjo version of it for Columbia. But as ragtime went out of fashion, Joplin lapsed into obscurity in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s, articles about him began to appear, leading to the first significant biographical work about him and his contemporaries, They All Played Ragtime. A small but fervent following existed in the 1950s and 1960s, leading to the founding of Rag Times magazine in May 1966.

In December 1970, Elektra Nonesuch Records released Piano Rags by Scott Joplin, the first of three albums by Joshua Rifkin that began to bring Joplin back into public consciousness. In 1973 The New England Cons. Ragtime Ensemble, conducted by Günther Schuller, reached the charts with The Red Back Book, an album of Joplin rags; it went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance. The same year, film director George Roy Hill decided to use Joplin’s music in The Sting (even though the film was set in the 1930s), which opened in the fall of 1973 and became the second-biggest box office hit of the year. By now out of copyright, the rags were arranged by Marvin Hamlisch, who won an Academy Award for his adaptation. The Sting soundtrack album topped the charts and went gold, while “The Entertainer,” released as a single, became a Top Ten gold-selling hit and won Hamlisch a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. (When he also won the Best New Artist Grammy, Hamlisch accepted the award by noting that Joplin was “the real new artist of the year.”)

Even before this success, Treemonisha had begun to attract notice, enjoying a world premiere performance at the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center and a second performance at Wolf Trap Farm outside Washington, D.C., in 1972. The Houston Grand Opera followed with a more elaborate production in May 1975 that moved to Broadway for a limited run five months later. In 1976, Joplin won a Pulitzer Prize, confirming the restoration of his place in American musical history.

Works

songs:”Please Say You Will” (copyright Feb. 20, 1895); “A Picture of Her Face” (July 3, 1895); “I Am Thinking of My Pickaninny Days” (April 9, 1902; lyrics by Henry Jackson); “Little Black Baby” (Oct. 7, 1903; lyrics by Louise Armstrong Bristol); “Sarah Dear” (Aug. 11, 1905; lyrics by Henry Jackson); “Snoring Sampson” (May 6, 1907; lyrics by Harry La Mertha); “When Your Hair Is Like the Snow” (May 18, 1907; lyrics by Owen Spendthrift). Piano: ”The Crush Collision March” (Oct. 15, 1896); “Harmony Club Waltz” (Nov. 16, 1896); “Combination March” (Nov. 16, 1896); “Original Rags” (March 15, 1899); “Maple Leaf Rag” (Sept. 18, 1899); “Swipesy Cake Walk” (July 21, 1900; with Arthur Marshall); “Sun Flower Slow Drag” (March 18, 1901; with Scott Hayden); “Peacherine Rag” (March 18, 1901); “Augustan Club Waltz” (March 25, 1901); “The Easy Winners” (Oct. 10, 1901); “Cleopha” (May 19, 1902); “March Majestic” (1902); “The Strenuous Life” (1902); “A Breeze from Alabama” (Dec. 29, 1902); “Elite Syncopations” (Dec. 29, 1902); “The Entertainer” (Dec. 29, 1902); “Something Doing” (Jan. 10, 1903; with Hayden); “Weeping Willow” (June 6, 1903); “Palm Leaf Rag” (Nov. 14, 1903); “The Favorite” (June 23, 1904); “The Sycamore” (July 18, 1904); “The Cascades” (Aug. 22, 1904); ’The Chrysanthemum” (Aug. 22, 1904); “The Rose-bud March” (1905); “Bethena” (March 6, 1905); “Binks’ Waltz” (Aug. 11, 1905); “Leola” (Dec. 18, 1905); “Eugenia” (Feb. 26, 1906); “Antoinette” (Dec. 12, 1906); “Heliotrope Bouquet” (Dec. 23, 1907; with Louis Chauvin); “The Nonpareil” (April 1907); “Searchlight Rag” (Aug. 12, 1907); “Gladiolus Rag” (Sept. 4, 1907); “Lily Queen” (Nov. 7, 1907; with Marshall); “Rose Leaf Rag” (Nov. 15, 1907); “Fig Leaf Rag” (Feb. 24, 1908); “Sugar Cane” (April 21, 1908); “Pine Apple Rag” (Oct. 12, 1908); “Wall Street Rag” (Feb. 23, 1909); “Solace” (April 28, 1909); “Pleasant Moments” (May 11, 1909); “Country Club” (May 11, 1909); “Euphonic Sounds” (Oct. 28, 1909); “Paragon Rag” (Oct. 29, 1909); “Stoptime Rag” (Jan. 4, 1910); “Felicity Rag” (July 27, 1911; with Hayden); “Scott Joplin’s New Rag” (May 1, 1912); “Kismet Rag” (Feb. 21, 1913; with Hayden); “Magnetic Rag” (July 21, 1914); “Reflection Rag (Syncopated Musings)” (Dec. 4, 1917). Ballet: The Ragtime Dance (Dec. 29, 1902). opera:Treemonisha (May 22, 1911).

Discography

The Entertainer: Classic Ragtime from Rare Piano Rolls (1992); Ragtime: Original Piano Rolls 1896-1917 (1995); The Original Piano Rolls 1899-1916 (1995).

Bibliography

R. Blesh and H. Janis, They All Played Ragtime (N.Y., 1950, 4th ed., 1971); V. B. Lawrence, ed., The Complete Works of S. J..J. (N.Y., 1981); A. W. Reed, The Life and Works ofS. J. (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of N.C., 1973); P. Gammond, S. J. and the Ragtime Era (N.Y., 1975); J. Haskins with K. Benson, S. J.: The Man Who Made Ragtime (N.Y., 1978); K. Preston, S. J. (N.Y., 1988); E. A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: S. J. and His Era (N.Y., 1994); S. Curtis, Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of S. J.. (Columbia, Mo., 1994).

—William Ruhlmann

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