Monday, June 04, 2007

Music: A Scott Joplin Primer

Naxos Records is episodically releasing the complete Piano Rags of Scott Joplin (1867-1917) in the same manner as The Complete Keyboard Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (the two composers have more in common than one might think). The Joplin series should be between three and five CDs. Before reviewing the Naxos releases, it should be worth while to have a little background about Ragtime Music, Joplin, and available recordings.

Ragtime Music

Ragtime, jazz after it, is a unique American invention. It was popular during the early 20th Century and has its origins in period dance music from the African-American community well before being published and sold as piano sheet music. It can be considered a eutection of African rhythms, derived from the slave community (as was the blues), marches, and western European classical music.

The ragtime genre technically is a modification of the march, composed in 2/4 or 4/4 meter with a pronounced left hand bass figure struck on odd-numbered beats and chords on even-numbered beats, supporting a syncopated melody in the right hand. This defines, in the simplest terms, a “rag.” A rag written in 3/4 meter is termed a “ragtime” waltz.

Ragtime music is specifically defined by the syncopation realized when melodic accents are struck between metrical beats. This produces a melody that ostensibly avoids some metrical beats of the accompaniment by emphasizing notes anticipating or following the beat. This rhythmic effect coupled with the meter used accentuates the beat, making the music perfectly suitable for dancing. The name “ragtime” is derived from the music being described as in “ragged time,” later shortened to “ragtime.”

While Scott Joplin is a centerpiece in ragtime music, he is by no means the first or only composer to write in the idiom. Joseph Lamb (1887-1960) and James Scott (1886-1938) are often considered in the same breathe as Joplin by aficionados. Joplin often co-wrote pieces with other composers, including “Heliotrope Bouquets” with Louis Chauvin, "Swipesy Cakewalk" with Arthur Marshall, and "Sensation" composed by the aforementioned Joseph Lamb and arranged by Joplin. Ragtime continues to be composed today by William Bolcom, David Thomas Roberts, and Scott Kirby.

Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin was born outside of Texarkana, Texas between 1867 and 1868; barely four years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Joplin’s father was a freed slave while his mother was free born. Both parents had musical inclinations, providing Joplin a musically sympathetic environment in which to grow. By seven years or age, Joplin began piano lessons with a German music teacher, Julius Weiss, who provided him a broad knowledge of the classical music form, which would nurture Joplin later in his quest to “legitimize” ragtime music, creating a "classical" form of the genre. Joplin would later move to Sedalia, Missouri and attend George R. Smith College, concentrating on music theory, harmony, and composition.

Once he finished his studies, Joplin was enough advanced to turn professional and earn his living as a working musician, playing the piano in bars and clubs, writing songs and performing in dance bands, playing piano, banjo, and cornet. These early career experiences pointed Joplin in the direction of ragtime. By the late 1890s, Joplin had sold several pieces for the piano, one of which was "Original Rags", a collection of existing melodies that he wrote collaboratively with other artists, a practice common in rural blues composition of the early 20th Century.

At the turn of the century Joplin composed and sold what would become his ragtime theme, "Maple Leaf Rag" to Sedalia music publisher John Stark & Son. At the time Joplin received terms that amounted to a one-cent royalty for each copy of sheet music sold and ten free copies for his own use, plus an advance. Besides providing Joplin with a comfortable living, "Maple Leaf Rag" pushed Joplin to the front of the class of ragtime composers and firmly placed ragtime into the respectable distinction of an established musical form.

Joplin moved to St. Louis, Missouri shortly thereafter and lived there between,1900 and 1903, when he composed some of his most famous pieces, including "Elite Syncopations," "The Entertainer," "March Majestic," and "Ragtime Dance." In addition to ragtime pieces, Joplin composed two operas, Treemonisha which was published in 1911 and only partially performed during the composer’s lifetime. Treemonisha was formally debuted in 1972 by the music department of Morehouse College in collaboration with The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The score to an earlier Joplin opera, A Guest of Honor (1903) is lost.

Joplin contracted syphilis early in life which progressed to its terminal tertiary form by 1916, when the disease began to rob Joplin of his ability to play piano. By January 1917, Joplin required hospitalization at Manhattan State Hospital in New York City, where he died on April 1, 1917.

Scott Joplin possesses an important place in the development of piano music in American music. His antecedent was Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) a New Orleans Creole educated in Paris and a contemporary of Frederic Chopin. Gottschalk’s compositions were full of pre-war New Orleans, Caribbean, and African influences, giving his music a progressively syncopated sound. Gottschalk’s music logically evolved into the ragtime of Joplin by the turn of the century.

Joplin’s pianism gave direct rise to the piano style of one Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe (ca. 1885/90-1941), AKA Jelly Roll Morton, who retained heavy syncopation in his playing style, which Morton humbly considered jazz and declared himself the its father. Morton’s piano style logically evolved into the stride piano of James P. Johnson (1894-1955), Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller (1904-1943) and William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff “Willie the Lion” Smith (1897-1973). This evolutionary stream of piano originality ended with Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) who further transformed the stride style into his own unique brand of jazz.

Joplin (and Gottschalk, for that matter) may be considered the American equivalents of Italy’s Domenico Scarlatti. All were popular in their lifetimes. All three specialized in composing short keyboard pieces that were often used for music instruction. And all three remain firmly in the modern performance repertoire. Joplin’s classical ragtime certainly deserves to played along side Bach and Beethoven.

Classical Ragtime

Scott Joplin desired to raise ragtime from the mere popular to the “classical.” “Classical Ragtime” describes ragtime composition developed by Joplin and the Missouri school of ragtime composers. The term was coined by Joplin’s publisher, John Stark, as a commercial way to separate them from the rags published by other houses. “Classical Ragtime” has evolved into the description of a specific structural form.

Conceived in a miasma of musical influences, at its genesis, ragtime defied printed definition with no common musical format for describing the syncopation of the pieces. In the early 20th Century a group of composers, led by Joplin, established conventions, by proxy, as Joplin was the most popular ragtime composer and his rag structures were ultimately accepted as a compositional template.

If conceived in Heaven, the “standard” structure of “Classical Ragtime” is composed in 2/4 meter with a four-bar introduction, followed by themes in the following order: INTRO AA BB A CC DD. Technically, there are one or two more particulars, but this gives the reader a pretty good idea. This definition exists only as a starting place for understanding a musical genre that is characterized by the exceptions to this definition rather than its rule.

Available Recordings

There have been many recordings of Scott Joplin rags. A consideration of the complete discography of available Joplin rags is neither practical nor warranted for this discussion. Many worthy recordings will be ignored in this article in an effort to provide the listener a sensible starting place in listening to and considering Scott Joplin’s music.

Having said that, let’s break to the chase. Between 1970 and 1974, Bach scholar Joshua Rifkin recorded a series of three LPs on Nonesuch records devoted to Scott Joplin piano rags. All total, Rifkin recorded 24 of Joplin’s published 62 rags*. These recordings, coupled with Marvin Hamlisch's score for the 1973 Oscar-winning movie The Sting, detonated a ragtime revival rivaled only by that of the blues resurgences a decade prior. Rifkin’s Joplin was critically acclaimed and has aged well. Unfortunately, all that is available on compact disc, Scott Joplin Piano Rags is fitted with the Volume 1 LP cover, and contains 17 rags, the eight being a direct transfer from the Volume 1 LP and the remaining gleaned from Volumes 2 and 3.

This is a unfortunate and Nonesuch Records should be ashamed of themselves for not having issued a two-CD set with all of Rifkin’s performances on them. Rifkin’s approach to Joplin sounds like his approach to Bach, which is an exposition of crystalline definition. In 1981, Joshua Rifkin fired a shot across the bow of the period-performance movement with a paper presented at American Musicological Society that not only corrected history, proving that Bach’s St. Matthew Passion premiered 1727 and not the previously thought 1729 but proposed boldly that much of Johann Sebastian Bach's vocal music, including the famous St. Matthew Passion, was performed with only one singer per choral part. Rifkin was unable to finish his presentation because of what was termed “strong audience reaction.” “Strong audience reaction” is classical-speak for a riot. Leave it to a bunch of moldy music intellectuals to treat one of their own like Mussolini after his execution.

Nevertheless, Rifkin’s concept of “less is more” in Bach prevailed and may be heard in his Joplin, which he plays in the same way many Eastern Seaboard scholar’s of rural blues play that particular genre, like peanut butter smoothed to remove the imperfections. Rifkin’s treatment of meter and tempo are straight as Pythagoras and precise as an atomic clock. Rifkin plays sola scriptura to great and educational effect, giving his performances the distinction as being those to which all other are compared. He takes seriously Joplin’s declaration that, "ragtime should never be played fast." This makes listening to every other performance an adventure, one where the listen to different ragtime philosophies and appreciate them all.

So, while Rifkin is the place to start, his collection is not a “complete” recording of the Joplin rags. For complete sets the listener can look to Richard Zimmerman’s Laser Light collection, a mainstay since its release in the early 1970s, providing perfectly serviceable Joplin. There is also John Arpin’s fine set on the budget label Classical Heritage for the early 1960’s and Guido Nielsen’s more recent (2004) imported set on Basta Records. Scott Kirby’s Greener Pasture series (currently unavailable) from the mid-1990s are exceptional in their freshness and courage while his later Viridiana Productions series have been stuck at Volumes 1 and 2, are decidedly more orthodox, but equally compelling.

Listening broadly across many different performances lends the listener an appreciation of just how differently Joplin is viewed from one pianist to the next. Secondly, listening to the “Complete” corpus of Joplin, leads to an appreciation of the breadth and depth of the Joplin “Classical Rag” artistically and historically. With the new series being spawned by the Naxos label, a new focus on Joplin is certainly warranted if not needed.

* Index p. 325, Scott Joplin Complete Piano Works, New York Public Library, 1981.

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007