Episode 2: Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin
(1868-1917)

Scott Joplin (ca. 1867–April 1, 1917) remains the best-known ragtime musician and composer, setting the standard for the many who followed.

Scott Joplin

Joplin was born near Linden, Texas to Florence Givins and Giles (sometimes listed as ‘Jiles’) Joplin. He was the second of six children. While for many years his date of birth was thought to be November 24, 1868, new research by ragtime historian Ed Berlin has revealed that this is inaccurate.

After 1871 the Joplin family moved to Texarkana, Texas and Scott’s mother cleaned homes so Scott could have a place to practice his music. By 1882 his mother had purchased a piano. Showing musical ability at an early age, the young Joplin received piano lessons for free from a German music teacher, who gave him a well-rounded knowledge of classical music form. This is something that would serve him well in later years, and fuel his ambition to create a ‘classical’ form of ragtime. He would later further his musical education by attending the George Smith College in Sedalia, studying composition.

By the late 1880s Joplin had left home to start a life of his own. He may have joined or formed various quartets and other musical groups and travelled around the midwest to sing. What is known is that he was part of a minstel troupe in Texarkana around 1891. In 1895, Joplin was in Syracuse, New York, selling two songs, Please Say You Will and A Picture of Her Face.

Scott Joplin

But despite all this travelling, his home base was in Sedalia, Missouri where he moved in 1894, working as a pianist in the Maple Leaf and Black 400 clubs, both social black clubs for respectable gentlemen.

By 1898 Joplin had sold six pieces for the piano, most very advanced tunes that were fine musically, but not anything special. Of the six, only Original Rags is a ragtime piece. The other five were two songs (mentioned previously), two marches, and a waltz.

In 1899, Joplin sold his most famous piece, Maple Leaf Rag to John Stark & Son, a Sedalia, Missouri, music publisher. Joplin received a one-cent royalty for each copy and ten free copies for his own use. It has been estimated that Joplin made $360 per year on this piece in his lifetime.

Maple Leaf Rag boosted Joplin to the top of the list of ragtime performers and moved ragtime into prominence as a musical form.

Joplin had several marriages. Perhaps his dearest love, Freddie Alexander, died at age twenty just two months after they married, of complications resulting from a cold. The first work copyrighted after Freddie’s death, Bethena (1905), is a very sad, musically complex ragtime waltz.

After some months of faltering, Joplin continued writing and publishing, and in those days before recorded music was a best-selling composer based on sales of sheet music. Joplin continued to experiment with other musical forms as well; after moving to New York City, Joplin attempted an ambitious ragtime opera,Treemonisha, which he produced himself at great personal expense. It was performed only once during his lifetime, in 1915. The score to an earlier ragtime opera by Joplin, A Guest of Honor, is lost.

ragtim

Joplin wanted to experiment further with compositions like Treemonisha, but by 1916 he was suffering from the effects of terminal syphilis. He suffered later from dementia, paranoia, paralysis and other symptoms. Despite this, he recorded six piano rolls that year — Maple Leaf Rag (for Connorized and Uni-Record labels), Something Doing, Magnetic Rag, Ole Miss Rag, and Pleasant Moments (all for Connorized). These are the only records of his playing we have, and are interesting for the embellishments added by Joplin to his performances. A surviving copy of the ‘Pleasant Moments’ roll has not yet been discovered. It has been claimed that the uneven nature of some of Joplin’s piano rolls, such as one of the recordings of the Maple Leaf Rag mentioned above, documented the extent of Joplin’s physical deterioration due to syphilis. However, the irregularities are just as likely due to the primitive technology used to record the rolls.

In mid-January 1917 Joplin was hospitalized at Manhattan State Hospital in New York City, and friends recounted that he would have bursts of lucidity in which he would jot down lines of music hurriedly before relapsing. Joplin died there on April 1, 1917. His death did not make the headlines for two reasons: ragtime was quickly losing ground to jazz and the United States would enter World War I within days. He was buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in the Astoria section of Queens.

Joplin’s musical papers, including unpublished manuscripts, were willed to Joplin’s friend and the executor of his will, musician and composer Wilber Sweatman. Sweatman took care of these papers and generously shared access to them to those who enquired. However these were unfortunately few, since Joplin’s music had come to be considered passé. After Sweatman’s death in 1961 the papers were last known to go into storage during a legal battle among Sweatman’s heirs; their current location is not known, nor even if they still exist.

There was, however, an important find in 1971 — a piano-roll copy of the lost ‘Silver Swan Rag,’ cut sometime around 1914. It had not been published in sheet-music form in Joplin’s lifetime. Before this, his only posthumously published piece had been ‘Reflection Rag’, put together by Stark in 1917 from fragments of Joplin melodies in Stark’s archives.

After Joplin’s death ragtime music experienced two bursts of popularity. The first was in the early 1950s when ragtime was regarded as a happy nostalgic music of a more innocent time. The second ragtime revival was prompted by the release of the movie The Sting in 1973, which despite being set in the 1930s still anachronistically featured a Joplin soundtrack and introduced new generations to his music. Marvin Hamlisch’s adaptation of the Joplin song ‘The Entertainer’ reached number 3 on the Billboard magazine Hot 100 music chart in 1974, and a much wider and deeper interest in ragtime in general and Joplin in particular was created. In 1974 Kenneth MacMillan created a ballet for the Royal Ballet, Elite Syncopations, based on tunes by Joplin, Max Morath and others. It is still performed occasionally.

— original source http://www.8notes.com/ —

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