Who was Scott Joplin?

In his heyday at the turn of the 20th century, Joplin could claim for himself a reputation as one of the best-selling composers of his time, and before the sudden demise of ragtime (which roughly coincided with his death in 1917, the year in which the first novelty jazz recordings were cut) his music had accomplished the singular feat of appealing equally successfully to popular, middlebrow and highbrow consumers.

When was Scott Joplin born?

Joplin was born in Texas, and moves to Texarkana at an early age. His father teaches him the violin and later he has lessons from Julius Weiss, an emigrant music professor.

In 1883 he formed a vocal quartet with three other boys, and performed in Texarkana and nearby towns. He performs on the piano in town halls and gives guitar and mandolin lessons.

Where did Scott Joplin go to college?

After travelling through a number of US states, he arrives in the town of Sedalia, Missouri, where he enrols at the George R Smith College in 1899 and joined the Queen City Cornet Band.

Scott Joplin made his name with the legendary Maple Leaf Rag (1899), which he penned while working as a pianist at the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Missouri: the sheet music sold more than half a million copies over the following ten years. Maple Leaf Rag quickly became celebrated as the prototypical piano rag, its distinctive style a modern enlivenment of the popular marches of the late 19th century, replete with infectiously memorable melody and abundant syncopation – the latter, ragtime’s most notable innovation, sounding considerably more original and daring around 1900 than it does to today’s jaded ears.

When did Joplin join 'Missouri school’ of classic ragtime?

Joplin subsequently enjoyed a fruitful partnership with the St Louis publisher John Stark as the lynchpin of the ‘Missouri school’ of classic ragtime which Stark strenuously promoted for the following two decades, also signing to his publishing house the lesser-known talents James Scott (1885-1938) and Joseph Lamb (1877-1960), both fine ragtime composers whose work still awaits wider recognition.

What are Joplin's most famous pieces?

Maple Leaf Rag was published in 1899, and in the decade after his unexpected hit with Maple Leaf Rag, Joplin composed and published around 40 piano rags and became the most widely celebrated and highest earning of Stark’s house composers. Among Joplin’s best-known tunes were The Easy Winners (1901), Elite Syncopations (1902), the ragtime waltz Bethena (1905), and Pineapple Rag (1908), which in its second half shows that its composer was fully aware of the expressive power of the ‘blue’ notes which would soon come to dominate jazz.

There was a considerable market in the pre-gramophone era for undemanding and catchy music for solo piano, and Stark continued to mine the lucrative business of sheet-music sales, which had expanded significantly in the late 19th century when the convenience of mail order for domestic customers was first exploited.

Joplin also cut piano rolls of his best-known compositions so that aficionados who owned player-pianos could hear the so-called ‘King of the Rags’ play his own music in their living rooms, as if by magic. (In fact, it was perfectly possible for piano rolls to be manufactured in a workshop without a finger having come into contact with a keyboard, so they are notoriously unreliable artefacts; at the very least, some of Joplin’s rolls appear to have been enhanced by the addition of unplayable octave doublings.) But Joplin’s growing popularity belied his serious artistic aspirations, which had always been to create a kind of African-American classical music to rival that of the revered European music which Americans of all creeds and colours were increasingly feeling to be of diminishing relevance to their modern transatlantic culture.

Did you know Joplin also composed ballet and opera music?

Joplin’s compositional ambitions drew him towards the prestigious classical genres of ballet and opera – and this tendency alarmed Stark, who fully understood the limited commercial potential such grandiose ventures offered when compared to the readily marketable (and easily mass-produced) piano rags.

Between 1899 and 1902, Joplin occupied himself with composing a ragtime ballet, The Ragtime Dance, which Stark declined to publish in full, merely issuing a standard-length potted arrangement for piano solo. Next came an opera on an African-American theme, A Guest of Honor, which Joplin took on a disastrous tour in 1903: the score, which was never published, is now lost.

Frustrated by Stark’s lack of support for these serious ventures, Joplin moved in 1907 to New York – by now well established as the international centre of popular-music publishing – partly to seek backing for his new large-scale opera Treemonisha, another groundbreaking project based on African-American subject matter. The plot concerns the efforts of the eponymous 18-year-old teacher to persuade her race that its salvation lies in a proper education, not superstition. In the event, Joplin was forced to publish the new opera at his own expense, and after an informal rehearsal of the work in Harlem in 1915 it sank almost without trace and was never properly performed in its composer’s lifetime. When Joplin died soon afterwards, he was suffering from a severe mental breakdown undoubtedly exacerbated by the irretrievable collapse of his grandest artistic ambitions.

As far as his popular piano rags were concerned, Joplin bitterly resented the cavalier attitude towards his finely crafted miniatures shown by some performers who habitually embellished them with jazzy variations or played them too fast simply for show. At the head of his printed scores he often included a warning: Note: Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ‘Ragtime’ fast. Composer.

After his move to New York, he published a book of piano exercises under the title School of Ragtime (1908) and in it declared: ‘the “Joplin ragtime” is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering, and very often good players lose the effect entirely, by playing too fast. They are harmonised with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written…’ In trying to classicise ragtime in this way, he must have known he was fighting a losing battle. But in abandoning its inherent refinement to the vagaries of wayward embellishers, ragtime gradually merged with the improvised tradition of the blues to create early jazz, and this remains its enduring legacy.

The flamboyant jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton (who we named one of the best jazz pianists ever), as part of a retrospective series of recordings made for the Library of Congress in 1938, demonstrated how he and other pianists working in the red-light district of New Orleans in the early 1900s would ‘jazz up’ (this sexually derived expression was considered offensive at the time) Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag by increasing the syncopations, speeding up the tempo, enlivening the left hand as well as the right, and making the music infectiously swing rather than stolidly march.

In 1921, just a year before Stark’s publishing house finally went out of business, James Scott composed his pointedly titled Don’t Jazz Me Rag – I’m Music, suggesting that Joplin was not the only ragtime composer who objected to the jazzing-up of his compositions. But Morton and even more virtuosic pianists on the East Coast had by then continued to develop what became known as the Harlem ‘stride’ style of up-tempo ragtime, and this was to remain the staple keyboard idiom in jazz until its importance dwindled with the advent of the more modernist bebop style in the 1940s. The music of pianists James P Johnson (composer of the famous Charleston in 1923), his protégé Fats Waller, and the keyboard playing of such influential later bandleaders as Duke Ellington and Count Basie were deeply rooted in the stride idiom that ultimately hailed from Joplin’s innovations decades before.

What is Scott Joplin's legacy?

During Joplin’s lifetime, American classical composers showed virtually no inclination to engage with the ragtime style he perfected. In Europe, however, ragtime elements were adopted by composers working in France who were keen to rebel against what many viewed as the moribund post-Wagnerian romanticism prevailing at the time. John Philip Sousa’s celebrated band played ragtime arrangements at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and this appearance was probably responsible for inspiring Debussy to rework Joplin-like ideas in his Golliwog’s Cakewalk (Children’s Corner, 1908) and two later piano preludes, Minstrels and General Lavine: Eccentric (1910 and 1913).

Ragtime also made an appearance in Erik Satie’s ballet Parade (1917), and was for a brief but intense period wittily modernised and distorted by Stravinsky in The Soldier’s Tale (1918), Piano-Rag-Music (written for Arthur Rubinstein in 1919) and Ragtime for Eleven Instruments (also dating from 1919, its premiere conducted by Arthur Bliss); in the last of these, a gypsy cimbalom is made to sound uncannily like the clattering of a bar-room piano.

Although Joplin’s music went out of fashion after his death it has enjoyed two revivals. The first took place in the 1940s when the immediate pre-history of jazz was subjected to fresh scrutiny as part of a general resurgence of interest in its early sounds, and from that point on the traditionalists were to remain in perpetual conflict with adherents of modern jazz styles. The second came in the 1970s, and was spearheaded by the pianist and musicologist Joshua Rifkin. He recorded several LPs of Joplin’s music for Nonesuch in the early 1970s, the first of these becoming the label’s first million-selling album. Rifkin’s Joplin recordings were aimed squarely at the classical market, as befitted his restrained and (to some ears) austere way

When and how did Scott Joplin die?

Just after beginning his Symphony No. 1, Scott Joplin was admitted to Ward Island Asylum battling syphilitic dementia. He dies on 1 April, 1917

Top image credit: Getty Images


Mervyn CookeWriter, BBC Music Magazine