April 1, 2008

April 1 | Scott Joplin

1867 or 1868 - April 1, 1917: Age 49 or 50

Scott Joplin was an American composer and musician known as the "King of Ragtime". His mother cleaned houses so that he could practice on her clients' pianos while she cleaned. A German music teacher recognized his talent and gave him free lessons. He studied the classical forms in this way, but was a musical omnivore, forming bands and quartets, singing, and playing in concert bands.

Ragtime was the first truly American musican genre, and it originated with African Americans, who took traditional jigs, waltzes, and marches, and syncopated the rhythms. The genre became extremely popular in the late 19th century, with composers everywhere adopting or adapting its syncopated rhythms. Although it's associated with frivolous entertainment, and often performed in a fast, aggressive, and somewhat mechanical style, it is a mature classical genre and Joplin is its pre-eminent composer. I believe its full emotional potential is at least indicated by the award-winning score of The Sting, for which Marvin Hamlisch adapted Joplin's compositions. Ironically, the film is set in the 1930s, by which time ragtime was considered completely passé and probably rarely heard. Click here for a three-minute sample from the film score on YouTube; there are just still visuals so you can keep reading this while you listen (it will open in another window).

It's hard to imagine today the challenges of a black composer's professional and personal life at the turn of the previous century. He also had a full share of sorrow unrelated to colour, including the untimely death of his best-loved wife (he had several) just two months after their wedding. Worst of all for all of us, he had syphilis. His career started slowly — recognition came only in his 30s — and ended too soon, as the syphilis began to affect his neurology by his late 40s. During the 'teens he recorded several player-piano rolls, and two versions of "Maple Leaf Rag", one made in April 1916 and the other in June of the same year, clearly show the deterioration.

His symptoms included dementia, paralysis, and paranoia, and was hospitalized in mid-January. During periods of lucidity he would jot down lines of music. He died on April 1, 1917. His death was not widely noticed by the papers: there was a war on (the US entered the war a few days after his death) and ragtime was on its way "out" as a fashionable genre.

In additional to his many ragtime compositions, Joplin also composed two operas, only one of which survives. I'll leave you with a link to an aria from Treemonisha. This YouTube video is accompanied simply by still photographs from Louisiana, which really suit it, I think.

Source: Wikipedia

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