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In 1973, a Hollywood movie brought the name of Scott Joplin before a wider audience than the composer might ever have imagined. The film was The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and was scored by Marvin Hamlisch, a young composer/arranger who soon would enjoy enormous success on Broadway with his score for A Chorus Line. Although The Sting was set in 1936, Hamlisch and director George Roy Hill decided to use ragtime music, notably Joplin’s rag The Entertainer, written in 1902. Hamlisch’s version of this catchy tune topped the hit parade and sold two million copies in the USA alone. For a brief period, Joplin became mainstream. The Historically Informed crowd also got in on the act. Recordings appeared from Gunther Schuller and Ralph Grierson of the original published orchestrations of Joplin’s work, from a collection called The Red Back Book.
In the late 1960s, the pianist Joshua Rifkin, and later the composer/pianist William Bolcom had reintroduced Joplin’s music to a classical audience, which is where Hamlisch and Hill discovered it. In spite of the syncopated rhythms and offbeat accents, classical music lovers recognised Joplin’s antecedents in the world of 19th-century salon music. His octave doublings recall Chopin, while the piano writing has moments of Lisztian bravura (often elaborated by subsequent arrangers). Debussy’s Golliwogg’s Cakewalk from his Children’s Corner Suite, written in 1908, suggests the Frenchman might have known Joplin’s work. Joplin’s international hit The Maple Leaf Rag was first published in 1899, but his fame as a composer and performer was cemented by The Cascades, a new rag he premiered at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair.
The exact date and location of Scott Joplin’s birth are unknown. It is estimated he was born between June 1867 and January 1868. He grew up in a town straddling the border of Texas and Arkansas, aptly named Texarkana. The whole family was musical. Early on, Scott showed a natural talent for the piano, although he played guitar and cornet as well. By his mid-teens he had become a travelling musician, working in bars and dance halls where a new syncopated musical style was emerging. In these rowdy establishments the mostly black patrons danced the cakewalk, the strut and the slow drag.
Joplin honed his compositional talents by improvising accompaniments for the dancers. Eventually he settled in Sedalia Missouri, where he took formal lessons at the George R. Smith College for Negroes. In Sedalia he published his first two compositions: both waltzes. Joplin’s fame spread after he was taken up by a flamboyant publisher and entrepreneur from St Louis, John Stark. Stark promoted him as “The King of Ragtime”, securing prestigious dates at the World’s Fairs in Chicago and St Louis, where Joplin’s music was played by such ensembles as The Kitties and the Washington Marine Band.
Stark once said of Joplin that “he was never caught smiling”, and it is true that the composer always maintained a thoughtful demeanour. He took ragtime seriously, working tirelessly to have it accepted as legitimate: a difficult task, since he was battling not only racial prejudice but also moral objections to a form of music born in the saloons and brothels of the South. In 1908 he published an analytical book for students: The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano.
Carmen Balthrop in the first fully staged professional production of Treemonisha at Houston Grand Opera
By far his greatest attempt to legitimise the form was to adapt it to the realm of opera. His first attempt, A Guest of Honor (1903), was mounted for a financially disastrous Midwest tour, but Joplin’s operatic masterpiece of 1911 Treemonisha was only ever performed at try-outs with piano. Set in a black community near Texarkana, it foreshadowed Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Joplin never saw Treemonisha produced, although he published the vocal score at his own considerable expense. Treemonisha was revived in the 1970s by the Houston Grand Opera, orchestrated and conducted by Gunther Schuller, and the production was recorded by DG (no less). In 2012, a more authentically scored recording was prepared by Rick Benjamin, a specialist in early 20th-century Americana. Joplin’s own orchestrations had long since disappeared.
Scott Joplin died in New York on April 1, 1917 from cerebral dementia, the result of syphilis.