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Respecting Mr. Joplin

"A wave of vulgar, filthy and suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cakewalk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures...Our children, our young men and women are continually exposed to the contiguity, to the monotonous attrition of this vulgarizing music. It is artistically and morally depressing, and should be suppressed by press and pulpit."  
                                                                    --Musical Courier, September 13, 1899

That ragtime was rubbish, hardly anyone of eminence disputed. That it was intoxicating was nearly everyone's guilty secret, causing a ragtime fad in America like no one had ever seen. No amount of moralistic crusading could stop it....
keeping it in its place, that was a different matter.

Its place was generally agreed to be among the lowlife and the seedy, and that is where it flourished: in bars, in brothels, in the entertainment districts of great cities, and, of course, among the social outcasts of society. Americans of more noble-minded persuasion knew who they were.

What bothered "respectable" America the most about ragtime may have been its infectious rhythm. Any number of religious societies that dotted the landscape in 19th century America seemed to have as one of their chief tenets a rejection of the dance, or anything that resembled it: music that got the toes tapping and the body jiggling was thought to be much too worldly, too physical, too....sinful. But it need not have been the music itself that got ragtime its contemptible reputation. The chief proponents of early ragtime had the misfortune of being poor, wanderers, and black.

Many Americans alive in 1899 had grown up on Minstrel shows, productions which featured white men whose faces were smeared with burnt cork to appear black, singing simple, good-natured songs and indulging in slapstick comedy. One message was clear: black folks weren't to be taken seriously. When they did occasionally appear on the stage, in their own Minstrel shows, it was evident that they could only appear in light-hearted comedic roles. Love scenes between negroes were unthinkable, unless down in a highly comic manner. A black man attempting to appear in a serious role would have caused a riot.

Given that most of the more prestigious venues were closed to blacks, it is natural that they would have made their music in the only place in society then open to them: the bottom. But this only strengthened the perception that ragtime was a dirty music, because it was associated with a host of sinful behaviors. Many of the early ragtime "professors" were actually hired as accompaniment to various goings-on in houses of ill repute.

Into this depressing climate strode a young man named Scott Joplin. That very year, his "Maple Leaf Rag" had been published, and it would soon rise to the top of the charts (if they'd had "charts" in those days), becoming a national hit, and making its composer famous. But Joplin had something other than fame on his mind. He was a serious composer, and he wanted to make ragtime an art.

Joplin managed to avoid the bawdy houses, for the most part, and did not associate freely with other ragtime pianists, as so many of the wandering minstrels of the new style did, roaming from town to town and sharing their styles communally from dusk till dawn in whatever house of entertainment they found themselves. He was a quiet man, and he earned his living mainly by teaching in his home, and living off the royalties he had managed to acquire in a deal with an unusually generous (or at least non-exploitive) publisher. When he discovered talent in other men, he was quick to recommend them to his own publisher. That he was able to recognize real talent is obvious in that two of the men he helped became, at least among ragtime aficionados, second in fame only to his own, and are remembered to posterity. He had fewer friends, but forged deeper bonds.

Joplin was not content to publish piano rags year after year in a repetitive fashion. There is a good deal of variety in those works--styles he tried to emulate, to translate into his own language--but they do not form his entire output, because the man was too ambitious not to seek further. He looked toward the art world, with its massive symphonies and towering concertos, and he thought he would enter that world. More than anything, he wanted to write an opera.

An opera for a ragtime composer is a curious thing, until we discover the roots of his passion in an episode of his early life, one of many that we know so little about. It is not idle fancy to speculate that it was the influence of an early teacher that pushed him in the direction of opera. The man was a German who loved the classics, and would expound to young Joplin the greatness of Bach, of Chopin, of the great opera composers Mozart and Verdi, Bellini and Donizetti.  That this man, an early advocate for Joplin of the highest ideals in art was also a friendly and kind influence on the boy must have stoked a fire that convinced him that he must do the same for his art--not that he must forsake the "gutter" of ragtime, but that he must turn it into something expressing the highest aspirations of humanity.

Writing an opera is one thing. Getting it published and performed is another. Joplin's publisher, the indefatigable champion of great ragtime, and a strong supporter in the white world, balked at the notion of publishing an entire opera. Too costly, he warned. The two men parted company as a result. But soon he would find that there weren't many others who shared his vision either.  A single performance, without scenery or costumes or full orchestra, to which he invited potential patrons in the hopes that it would secure needed financial backing for the project,  was the opera's only performance. The opera was called "A Guest of Honor" and it no longer survives, though there are many rumors concerning its fate.

Great as the disappointment was, it did not stop Joplin from attempting another opera, though this too was to remain unpublished and unperformed in the composer's lifetime. The story concerns a young girl named Treemonisha, who delivers her people from the ignorance of superstition. The wondrous effects of education had been one of Joplin's convictions from the beginning. As a teacher, Joplin published a "school of ragtime" to instruct would-be players of his music in the fine art of the rag.

In his quest to restore dignity to ragtime, Joplin's attitude was actually very similar to that of Schumann or Brahms*: he deplored gallons of notes that signified empty display. While many ragtimers were trying to outdo one another in speed and fantastic execution, Joplin argued for a more stately tempo. From the middle of his output onwards, each of his rags comes with an instruction from the composer in a little box at the top of the page: "Ragtime must be played slowly. It is never right to play ragtime fast." How slowly is a good question; doubtless this instruction has been abused by overindulgence.  In Joplin's world, anything short of a lively presto was probably considered "slow".

As many black men of his era found, however, the quest for personal and artistic dignity in the white world was simply an impossible one.  Joplin's obsessive need to get someone to stage his opera drove him near the edge of insanity; then he succumbed.  He died in a mental hospital in 1917, the same day the United States entered the First World War.


Joplin's "Treemonisha" has since been recorded and is occasionally performed. For an exhaustive (and exhausting) account of the era, see Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis's "They All Played Ragtime," Oak Publications, New York, N.Y., 1966.


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