Scott Joplin : King of Ragtime

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Scott Joplin, the “King of Ragtime” music, was born near Linden, Texas on November 24, 1868. He moved with his family to Texarkana at the age of about seven.

Even at this early age, Joplin demonstrated his extraordinary talent for music. Encouraged by his parents, he was already proficient on the banjo, and was beginning to play the piano. By age eleven and under the tutelage of Julius Weiss, he was learning the finer points of harmony and style. As a teenager, he worked as a dance musician.

After several years as an itinerant pianist playing in saloons and brothels throughout the Midwest, he settled in St. Louis about 1890. There he studied and led in the development of a music genre now known as ragtime–a unique blend of European classical styles combined with African American harmony and rhythm.

In the late 1890s, Joplin worked at the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, which provided the title for his best known composition, the Maple Leaf Rag, published in 1899. This was followed a few years later by The Entertainer, another well known Joplin composition. Over the next fifteen years, Joplin added to his already impressive repertoire, which eventually totaled some sixty compositions. In 1911, Joplin moved to New York City, where he devoted his energies to the production of his operatic work, Treemonisha, the first grand opera composed by an African American. At the time, however, this resulted unsuccessfully.

After suffering deteriorating health due to syphilis that he contracted some years earlier, Joplin died on April 1, 1917 in Manhattan State Hospital.

Although Joplin’s music was popular and he received modest royalties during his lifetime, he did not receive recognition as a serious composer for more than fifty years after his death. Then, in 1973, his music was featured in the motion picture, The Sting, which won and Academy Award for its film score. Three years later, in 1976, Joplin’s opera Treemonisha won the coveted Pulitzer Prize.

There are two recordings of Treemonisha, the first released in 1992 by the Houston Opera Company conducted by Gunther Schuller was an important event.  However, the one I prefer is by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Singers which came out in 2011.

517wy-vRWVL._SX425_This set is the culmination of two decades of research, social anthropology and painstaking forensic reconstruction. And I can’t think of a more worthwhile task — musical archaeology that needed doing — than rescuing Joplin’s sole surviving opera from obscurity and misunderstandings, some well-meaning, others inexplicably stupid and sloppy. Understanding Treemonisha is not just about hearing Joplin’s achievements in the round; it’s about gaining a proper understanding of black culture during that historically nebulous period when jazz was in its baroque infancy…. Benjamin’s light-on-its-feet orchestration fits the music: genteel melodic lines swim like fish through pure water…. For a composer expert in ‘closed form’ — harmonic ambiguity overrode ragtime’s rigid 16-bar phrases to flat-pack the structure into itself — the wonder of Treemonisha is Joplin’s flair for dramatic trajectory, the intensity of thematic development making his writing spring eternal. This is the most important document about the history of American composed music to have appeared in a long, long time. — Gramophone Magazine

Having closely studied all available musical and historical sources related to the opera including Joplin’s own instrumentation jottings in his personal copy of the piano score Mr. Benjamin aimed to create a new, historically correct performing edition of the opera that would reflect the original musical character intended by Joplin… The first thing listeners to this splendid new “Treemonisha” will note is its intimacy. Instead of grandiose voices and opera-scale orchestrations, this recording features lighter voices accompanied by the lighter orchestral textures of authentic ragtime instrumentation, based on the so-called “Eleven and Piano” ensemble. Consisting of flute (also doubling as piccolo), clarinet, two cornets, trombone, drums, piano, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass, with one instrument to a part, this nimble combination was the standard instrumental makeup of theater, minstrel-show and vaudeville orchestras from the 1870s to the 1920s. It was also the basis of early recording orchestras before the invention of the recording microphone. … “‘Treemonisha,'” says Mr. Benjamin, “is truly a rare artifact of a vanished culture: an opera about African-Americans of the Reconstruction era created by a black man who actually lived through it. As a unique work of art, it doesn’t fit the usual templates. It is the product of a great American genius, and we hope at least to help focus attention on what’s truly wonderful about it.” — Barrymore Laurence Scherer – The Wall Street Journal

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