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Scott Joplin

Joplin grew up in a musical family of railway laborers in 1868 in Texas. Joplin was the second of six children born to Giles Joplin, a former slave from North Carolina, and Florence Givens, a freeborn African-American woman from Kentucky. His birth date was accepted by early biographers Blesh and Haskins as November 24, 1868, although later biographer Berlin showed this was "almost certainly incorrect". There is disagreement over his exact place of birth in Texas, with Blesh identifying Texarkana, and Berlin showing the earliest record of Joplin being the June 1870 census which locates him in Linden, as a two-year old.

He developed his own musical knowledge with the help of local teachers. While in Texarkana, Texas, he formed a vocal quartet and taught mandolin and guitar. During the late 1880s, he left his job as a railroad laborer and traveled the American South as an itinerant musician. He went to Chicago for the World's Fair of 1893, which played a major part in making ragtime a national craze by 1897.

Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894 and earned a living as a piano teacher. There he taught future ragtime composers Arthur Marshall, Scott Hayden and Brun Campbell. There is little precise evidence known about Joplin's activities at this time, although he performed as a solo musician at dances and at the major black clubs in Sedalia, the Black 400 Club and the Maple Leaf Club. He performed in the Queen City Cornet Band and his own six-piece dance orchestra. A tour with his own singing group, the Texas Medley Quartet, gave him his first opportunity to publish his own compositions. He began publishing music in 1895 and publication of his "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899 brought him fame. This piece had a profound influence on writers of ragtime. It also brought Joplin a steady income for life, though he did not reach this level of success again and frequently had financial problems. In 1901, Joplin moved to St. Louis, where he continued to compose and publish and regularly performed in the community. The score to his first opera, A Guest of Honor, was confiscated in 1903 with his belongings for non-payment of bills, and is now considered lost.

In 1907, Joplin moved to New York City to find a producer for a new opera. He attempted to go beyond the limitations of the musical form that had made him famous but without much monetary success. In 1911, unable to find a publisher, Joplin undertook the financial burden of publishing his opera Treemonisha himself in piano-vocal format. In 1915, as a last-ditch effort to see it performed, he invited a small audience to hear it at a rehearsal hall in Harlem. Poorly staged and with only Joplin on piano accompaniment, it was failure to a public not ready for black musical forms—so different from the European grand opera of that time. The audience, including potential backers, was indifferent and walked out. After a disastrous single performance, Joplin suffered a breakdown. He was bankrupt, discouraged, and worn out. Treemonisha went unnoticed and unreviewed.

By 1916, Joplin was suffering from syphilis. In fits of mania and rage, he destroyed many of his manuscripts and became unable to care for himself at all. In January 1917, he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital, a mental institution. Doctors there were overwhelmed by the number of patients in their care and lacked the resources necessary to help them. He died there on April 1 of syphilitic dementia at the age of 48 and was buried in a pauper's grave that remained unmarked for 57 years. His grave at St. Michael's Cemetery in East Elmhurst was finally given a marker in 1974, the year The Sting, which showcased his music, won for best picture at the Oscars. Joplin's death is widely considered to mark the end of ragtime as a mainstream music format; over the next several years, it evolved with other styles into stride, jazz and eventually big band swing.

While Joplin never made an audio recording, his playing is preserved on seven piano rolls for use in mechanical player pianos. All seven were made in 1916. Of these, the six released under the Connorized label show evidence of significant editing to correct the performance to strict rhythm and add embellishments, probably by the staff musicians at Connorized. Berlin theorizes that by the time Joplin reached St. Louis, he may have experienced discoordination of the fingers, tremors, and an inability to speak clearly—all symptoms of the syphilis that killed him. Biographer Blesh described the second roll recording of "Maple Leaf Rag" on the UniRecord label from June 1916 as "...shocking... disorganized and completely distressing to hear." While there is disagreement among piano-roll experts as to how much of this is due to the relatively primitive recording and production techniques of the time, Berlin notes that the "Maple Leaf Rag" roll was likely to be the truest record of Joplin's playing at the time.

Joplin's music was rediscovered and returned to popularity in the early 1970s with the release of a million-selling album recorded by Joshua Rifkin. This was followed by the Academy Award-winning 1973 film The Sting, which featured several of Joplin's compositions, most notably "The Entertainer", a piece performed by pianist Marvin Hamlisch that received wide airplay. His opera Treemonisha was finally produced in full, to wide acclaim, in 1972. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

Selected Performances

Solace (1909): This is perhaps my most favorite Joplin composition. The first time I heard this piece was back in the late 70s when I caught an airing of "The Sting" on a local station. I was mesmerized by all the ragtime music in the film, but especially this piece with it's habanera left-hand rhythm and haunting melodies. Certainly, one of Joplin's finest!


Gladiolus Rag (1909): Scott Joplin wrote Gladiolus Rag in 1907. It's a great example of a classic ragtime piece of that era - and no one wrote rags quite like Joplin! By 1907, Joplin was moving away from the strict oom-pah left-hand pattern and employing other devices like octaves and 16th note lines. This piece beautifully demonstrates how Joplin's writing technique was evolving and growing.


Magnetic Rag (1914): Out of all of Scott Joplin’s published piano works, this one is my absolute favorite - it’s Joplin’s masterpiece. Written in 1914, Joplin was already suffering the later stages of syphilis would would die only three years later. The piece is a great example of Joplin’s experimental period, where he was working to evolve and push the boundaries of the ragtime form. In the album notes to Scott Joplin: Piano Rags, Joshua Rifkin describes the "Magnetic Rag" as a "valedictory work" with Joplin paying "tribute" to a "transplanted Middle-European dance music" and the European masters whom he tried to emulate. Rifkin speculates that the composition's short coda at the end also "seems like a farewell, as if he knew how brief and bleak was the time still allotted him."

Locating The Music

Joplin's complete piano works are available from Amazon.

Compositions for Piano

The Crush Collision March (1896)

Combination March (1896)

Harmony Club Waltz (1896)

Original Rags (1899)

Maple Leaf Rag (1899)

Swipesy (1900)

The Augustan Club Waltz (1901)

Sun Flower Slow Drag (1901)

Peacherine Rag (1901)

The Easy Winners (1901)

March Majestic (1902)

Cleopha (1902)

The Strenuous Life (1902)

A Breeze from Alabama (1902)

Elite Syncopations (1902)

The Entertainer (1902)

The Rag Time Dance (1902)

Something Doing (1903)

Weeping Willow (1903)

Palm Leaf Rag (1903)

The Favorite (1904)

The Sycamore (1904)

The Chrysanthemum (1904)

The Cascades (1904)

Rosebud (1905)

Binks' Waltz (1905)

Bethena (1905)

Leola (1905)

Eugenia (1905)

Antoinette (1906)

The Nonpareil (1907)

Searchlight Rag (1907)

Gladiolus Rag (1907)

Lily Queen (1907)

Rose Leaf Rag (1907)

Heliotrope Bouquet (1907)

Fig Leaf (1908)

Sugar Cane (1908)

Sensation (1908)

Pine Apple Rag (1908)

Wall Street Rag (1909)

Solace (1909)

Pleasant Moments (1909)

Country Club (1909)

Euphonic Sounds (1909)

Paragon Rag (1909)

Stoptime Rag (1910)

Felicity Rag (1911)

Scott Joplin's New Rag (1912)

Kismet Rag (1913)

Magnetic Rag (1914)

Silver Swan Rag (1914)

Pretty Pansy (lost; 1915)

Recitative Rag (lost; 1915)


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