Scott Joplin

Jul 1st, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Scott Joplin1868?-1917  Scott Joplin became a hugely popular composer twice over, once during his lifetime and again a half-century later. The “ragtime” style he popularized was a precursor to his other efforts in opera and orchestral music, and his rags are still performed by classical as well as jazz ensembles today.

From Texas, Self-Taught

Joplin was born between July 1867 and January 1868, based on census records, in east Texas. His mother was a free-born African American, and his father was a former slave. Joplin was the second of six children. The family moved to the region known as Texarkana during Joplin’s early childhood where his father worked as a laborer and his mother as a domestic. Both parents were musical, and two of Joplin’s siblings became performers. Joplin had access to a piano in one of the homes where his mother worked, and taught himself the basics of music. His talent was recognized by a local music teacher from Germany, who continued his training and introduced him to European musical forms such as opera.

Joplin’s initial career featured performances on piano, violin, cornet, and vocals with various groups and a minstrel troupe as early as 1891. In approximately 1895, having begun writing songs, he moved to Sedalia, Missouri, and in that year, his Texas Medley Quartette toured as far east as Syracuse, New York. There his first compositions had their earliest exposure. Back in Sedalia, Joplin attended the George R. Smith College and continued playing piano. During this period, ragtime emerged as a popular genre, and reached a broad audience at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 where Joplin could be found playing cornet with a band near the midway. The first publication of ragtime sheet music (then the only means of distributing music) was in 1897, and Joplin was not far behind: his “Original Rags” was published in 1899 by a Kansas City company that treated the composer unfairly.

Joplin approached a local Sedalia publisher, John Stark, for his next published composition, and had a lawyer assist with his contract. Fortuitously, this was “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which would prove to be the most popular of Joplin’s creations. His one-cent royalty from each copy sold provided a modest financial cushion. As an additional benefit, Stark’s daughter, a classically trained concert pianist, stimulated Joplin’s aspirations by asserting that his compositions were artistically valid classical works. By 1899, Joplin had completed a folk ballet called “The Ragtime Dance.” He also met and married his first wife, Belle, during this fertile period.

An Operatic Climax

The newlyweds moved to St. Louis in 1901 where Joplin focused on composing and teaching, and became intimate with the local ragtime community. This included a gathering place called the Rosebud Saloon, and musicians and performers such as Louis Chauvin who co-authored the lovely “Heliotrope Bouquet” with Joplin. Concurrently, Joplin apparently found classical music inspiration in the person of Alfred Ernst, a well-known conductor, who called him a “genius.” By early 1902, he had begun his first opera. Entitled A Guest of Honor, it was based on a seminal event of the era when President Theodore Roosevelt invited the African American leader Booker T. Washington to dinner. Joplin wrote the libretto (or lyrics) as well as the music, in the style of such European luminaries as Wagner.

But the work would prove to be a major setback: Joplin organized his own company to present the opera, and began a tour to several cities, but a thief stole all of the receipts mid-tour. Exacerbating the disaster, Stark failed to publish the work, and the score (along with all of Joplin’s traveling possessions) was seized by a creditor. By this time, his marriage to Belle had also met an unhappy ending, and his financial resources were exhausted. While visiting relatives in Arkansas in 1904, Joplin met and married a 19-year-old woman named Freddie to whom he dedicated a rag entitled “Chrysanthemum – an Afro-American Intermezzo,” hinting at his efforts to meld ragtime and classical forms. On the trip home to Sedalia, Freddie became ill; she died of pneumonia 10 weeks after the wedding. Although he would marry once more, Joplin was evidently haunted by this tragic experience.

Joplin went on to work on a new opera called Treemonisha. He traveled to New York in 1907 to seek backing for the work and a publisher. There, he met with a young Irving Berlin. Berlin, who was then on the staff of a publishing company, rejected Joplin’s work; but several months later, the soon-to-be-famous songwriter published his hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Joplin had to rewrite one section of his own opera to differentiate it from Berlin’s song.

Joplin again wrote the libretto, which reflected his early experience and his belief in the power of education: the central character of Treemonisha is a young black woman who, through education, leads her townspeople out of superstition and ignorance, an allegory for Joplin’s perception of the African American experience of the time. A full-page review of the score in the influential American Musician and Art Journal praised the overall quality of the music and claimed that it was the most “American” opera ever written. But Joplin, who by then had begun to suffer the effects of syphilis contracted years before, devoted most of his remaining time and energy to trying to bring Treemonisha to the stage. He was hospitalized in New York in early 1917, and died, largely forgotten, in April of that year.

Joplin had predicted that it would take 25 years for his music to be appreciated, and he was not far off. A ragtime revival began in 1941, and became popular throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, classical music labels began issuing ragtime recordings, and the New York Public Library published a collection of Joplin’s works. Treemonisha finally received a full staging at Morehouse College, classical music ensembles began performing orchestrations of Joplin’s rags, pop musicians successfully recorded his songs, and finally, the movie The Sting, featuring an all-Joplin score, endeared his brilliant compositions to a new generation of music lovers worldwide. His lost works include a symphony, a piano concerto, and a musical. In 1976, the Pulitzer Committee gave him a posthumous award for contributions to American music. He continues to inspire artists and entertain audiences to this day.


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