The revival of interest in Scott Joplin a century after his death is not unparalleled in the fortunes of earlier musicians. Bach, for instance, was highly regarded during his lifetime only in local circles. After his death in 1750, his memory was kept alive mainly by his pupils; and it was not until after 1800 that he became known to the concert-going public. Similarly. Schubert was known during his lifetime mainly among his friends in Vienna. His “Unfinished Symphony” is unfinished because he sent a couple of movements to the Society of the Friends of Music to see whether they would perform it. The manuscript got pigeonholed, and he never asked for it back. Well after his death it was discovered there, was performed, and swept the world.
Similarly with Scott Joplin. He was a musician of high aspirations who was to some extent appreciated within certain local circles. Like Chopin and Liszt he was highly regarded as a performer and composer of music for the piano, which during the 19th century achieved a very high point in its development.
But he was more than that. Like Schubert and Schumann he aspired also to compose for the theater. Like many of the great composers of the past, also, he felt a considerable drive to teach, expressing himself not only through his pupils who later became prominent but also leaving us an instructional work which he called School of Ragtime.
This school is significant — not just in itself as a method of playing his pieces but also as a key to his conception of music. Within the past few years there has been great interest in his compositions. His Collected Piano Works were issued in a volume edited by Vera Brodsky Lawrence and published by the New York Public Library in 1971; his opera Treemonisha was performed in Atlanta in 1972; notable concerts of his piano works have been given in Washington and New York; and albums of his pieces have been issued. Mass media have also come into play; there have been notable TV programs of his music, and it serves as background to the movie The Sting.
Apparently Joplin felt impelled to formulate his School of Ragtime in order to make it clear what a “Joplin Rag” is and to assist those who wished to play it to conceive of it properly. Popular forms like the rag, the blues, the waltz, the landler, the polka, the mazurka, the Hungarian dance, and so on, were — in their day — living popular forms. They hadn’t quite jelled — at least, to the extent that they may seem to have as we look back at them today. They had not been perfected. Various composers were working in more or less folk-material which they felt in their bones had possibilities. Just as Schubert lied is more than just a song, so a Joplin rag is more than just a rag. What that “more than” involves is the reason for the School of Ragtime’s being.
Basic to any work of art is a maximum co-existence in it of unity and variety, of simplicity and complexity, of order and departure from order — that is, a maximum within the self-imposed limits of its nature. The self-imposed limits of a “Joplin rag” arise from its being fundamentally a piano form. Here one has the regularity of the left hand part and the syncopated departure from and return to it in the right-hand part. This is the idea of tempo rubato as practiced in Chopin’s day. Rubato was not a matter of listless ritardano and accelerando, depending on how the player felt. Rather it was something exact. What was stolen from one beat was paid back in another. In many of Chopin’s pieces there is a regular left-hand part against a varied right-hand one — as in the compositions of many great composers. In fact, the whole basso ostinato idea is fundamentally this. In Joplin it is the rhythm rather than the melody that supplies the ostinato element. And, in general, the playing off of a regular part against a comparatively irregular one — though all comes out right at the end — is one of the perennial aspects of musical vitality.
Joplin insisted in his School that ragtime should never be played fast — at any time. There is the calm deliberateness about a Joplin rag that reminds one more of the slow middle movement of the older classical forms of concerted music.
Behind the slow march tempo, counted 1-2, he thought of each beat as consisting of four sixteenths. Basically, the unit in terms of which he thought was the sixteenth, not the quarter note. This goes back to a conception of music as an additive union of corpuscles of time. The approach is not primarily analytical or divisive, in which the piece as a whole is thought of as dissected into subdivisions, and they into sub-subdivisions, and so on. It’s all more like dance than like architecture.
Some of these sixteenth-note units, however, were thought of by Joplin as being tied together and not to be re-struck. It’s as in playing the organ, where repeated notes are usually not given separate impulses by the finger. They’re tied over. Thus the whole has a sense of relaxed dignity. It shouldn’t be too busy. Contrary to what its name might suggest, it should not sound ragged.
Actually, Joplin was taking account of the greater resonance of pianos in the late 19th century. Earlier — in say, Haydn and Mozart — when the clavichord, harpsichord, and wooden-framed piano was the norm, there had been a great deal of repeated striking of notes and redundant filling in of intervals, together with trilling and ornamenting the principal notes in various ways. In part this was due to the inability of the instrument to sustain tone. But by the middle of the 19th century, with greater use of metal in the piano framework, the instrument had become much more sonorous. Joplin’s insistence on tying over notes to create syncopation was a natural development, both in terms of his artistic conception of juxtaposing a varied right hand against a regular left and in terms of the state of the instrument that was now available to him.
Although much in his music can be rationalized in terms of his social background and in other ways, they do not by any means explain exhaustively the distinctive aspects of his achievement. Born in Texas shortly after the close of the Civil War, he grew up in a musical family. Early he received instruction from a German music teacher, with whom he maintained contact throughout his life. His early activities focused on Sedalia, Missouri, where he took courses in harmony and composition at a local college. In Sedalia he also himself taught extensively, playing at various clubs including The Maple Leaf, and began to see his works in print. His Maple Leaf Rag (1899) was a notable success. Also in 1899, at Sedalia, he saw his ballet The Ragtime Dance performed.
An opera of his, A Guest of Honor, was performed in St. Louis. Billed as “King of Ragtime Composers — Author of Maple Leaf Rag”, he successively made his base of operations St. Louis, Chicago and New York. Eventually, in the latter, he became more concerned with teaching, publishing his School of Ragtime there in 1908, and becoming increasingly absorbed in attempts to get a proper performance for his opera Treemonisha. This was not easy. The Met, according to Karl H. Worner’s History of Music, did not perform an opera by an American until 1910, and even then it was only a one-act.
Joplin’s death in a mental institution in 1917 perhaps recalls to us the unfortunate end of a number of other composers — Schumann, Wolf, MacDowell, Smetana, Ravel.
No one would wish to discount the folk-aspects of Joplin’s work, any more than one would wish to disregard the Polish aspects of Chopin’s or the Hungarian of Liszt’s or Bartok’s. But one must also not neglect the fact that he was a knowledgeable composer, quite aware of 19th century practice. His copy of Judassohn’s counterpoint manual showed that he studied it assiduously. His conception of music generally, and of the rag in particular, was simple not by necessity but by choice. It has a kind of sublime simplicity about it, like the late work of many other great creative artists.
by Dr. Willis Wager
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