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Scott Joplin and “The Entertainer”

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Scott Joplin (c. 1867/68 – April 1, 1917) was an American composer and pianist, who achieved fame for his ragtime compositions and was dubbed the “King of Ragtime Writers.”  It is often claimed that Joplin was born in Texarkana, Texas, on November 24, 1868. Some have responded that the location is easily dispensed with because Texarkana was not established until 1873.  However, based on a letter discovered by musicologist John Tennison in 2015 in the December 19, 1856, edition of the Times-Picayune, it is clear that Texarkana was established as a place-name by no later than 1856. Consequently, it appears possible that Joplin, born twelve years later, could have been born in Texarkana. Despite evidence to support such a conclusion, it is now generally believed that Joplin was born in Linden, Texas, either in late 1867 or early 1868, into a musical family of railway laborers.  He was the second of six children (the others being Monroe, Robert, William, Myrtle, and Ossie) born to Giles Joplin, an ex-slave from North Carolina, and Florence Givens, a freeborn African-American woman from Kentucky.

In any event, the Joplins subsequently moved to Texarkana where Giles worked as a laborer for the railroad and Florence was a cleaner. Joplin’s father had played the violin for plantation parties in North Carolina, and his mother sang and played the banjo.   Joplin was given a rudimentary musical education by his family and from the age of seven, he was allowed to play the piano while his mother cleaned.  Young Joplin was serious and ambitious, studying music and playing the piano after school.  He received most of his music education from Julius Weiss, a German-born music professor who had immigrated to Texas in the late 1860s and was employed as music tutor to a prominent local business family.   Weiss tutored the 11-year-old Joplin until the boy was 16, during which time Weiss introduced him to folk and classical music, including opera. At the age of 16, Joplin performed in a vocal quartet with three other boys in and around Texarkana, also playing piano. In addition he taught guitar and mandolin.

In the late 1880s, having performed at various local events as a teenager, Joplin chose to give up work as a laborer with the railroad and left Texarkana to become a traveling musician.  Little is known about his movements at this time, although he is recorded in Texarkana in July, 1891, as a member of the Texarkana Minstrels in a performance that happened to be raising money for a monument to Jefferson Davis, President of the Southern Confederacy.  He soon discovered, however, that there were few opportunities for black pianists.  Joplin played pre-ragtime ‘jig-piano’ in various areas throughout the mid-South, and some claim he was in Sedalia and St. Louis during this time.  In 1893 Joplin was in Chicago for the World’s Fair. While in Chicago, he formed his first band playing cornet and began arranging music for the group to perform.

In 1894 Joplin arrived in Sedalia, Missouri. At first, Joplin stayed with the family of Arthur Marshall, at the time a 13-year-old boy but later one of Joplin’s students and a rag-time composer in his own right. There is no record of Joplin having a permanent residence in the town until 1904, as Joplin was making a living as a touring musician.  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 and it is known that he went to Syracuse, New York and Texas. Two businessmen from New York published Joplin’s first two works, the songs “Please Say You Will”, and “A Picture of her Face” in 1895.

Joplin’s visit to Temple, Texas enabled him to have three pieces published there in 1896, including the “Great Crush Collision March”, which commemorated a planned train crash on the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad on September 15 that he may have witnessed.  While in Sedalia he was teaching piano to students who included future ragtime composers Arthur Marshall, Brun Campbell, and Scott Hayden.  In turn, Joplin enrolled at the George R. Smith College, where he apparently studied advanced harmony and composition. The College records were destroyed in a fire in 1925.  In 1899, Joplin married Belle, the sister-in-law of collaborator Scott Hayden. Although there were hundreds of rags in print by the time the “Maple Leaf Rag” was published, Joplin was not far behind. His first published rag, “Original Rags”, had been completed in 1897, the same year as the first ragtime work in print, the “Mississippi Rag” by William Krell. The “Maple Leaf Rag” was likely to have been known in Sedalia before its publication in 1899.  The “Maple Leaf Rag” served as a model for the hundreds of rags to come from future composers, especially in the development of classic ragtime.  After the publication of the “Maple Leaf Rag”, Joplin was soon being described as “King of rag time writers” on the covers of his own works, such as “The Easy Winners” and “Elite Syncopations”.

After the Joplins moved to St. Louis in early 1900, they had a baby daughter who died only a few months after birth.  About this time, Joplin collaborated with Scott Hayden in the composition of four rags.  It was in St. Louis that Joplin produced some of his best-known works, including “The Entertainer,” “March Majestic,” and the short theatrical work “The Ragtime Dance.”  During this time, Joplin created an opera company of 30 people and produced his first opera A Guest of Honor for a national tour. It is believed that the score for A Guest of Honor was lost and perhaps destroyed because of non-payment of the company’s boarding house bill.  In 1907, Joplin moved to New York City, which he believed was the best place to find a producer for a new opera.  In 1911, unable to find a publisher, Joplin undertook the financial burden of publishing 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 a miserable failure to a public not ready for black musical forms—so different from the European grand opera of that time.

Joplin suffered a breakdown. He was bankrupt, discouraged, and worn out.   In 1914, Joplin self-published his “Magnetic Rag” as the Scott Joplin Music Company, which he had formed the previous December.  Also he plunged feverishly into the task of orchestrating his opera, day and night, with his friend Sam Patterson standing by to copy out the parts, page by page, as each page of the full score was completed.  By 1916, Joplin was suffering from tertiary syphilis and a resulting descent into insanity.  In January 1917, he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital, a mental institution. He died there on April 1, 1917, of syphilitic dementia at the age of 49. During his brief career, he wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. One of his first, and most popular pieces, the “Maple Leaf Rag,” became ragtime’s first and most influential hit, and has been recognized as the archetypal rag. Joplin’s death is widely considered to mark the end of ragtime as a mainstream music format, and in the next several years it evolved with other styles into stride, jazz, and eventually big band swing. His 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 movie The Sting that featured several of his compositions including “The Entertainer.” The opera Treemonisha was finally produced in full to wide acclaim in 1972. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

The following work by Scott Joplin is contained in my collection:

The Entertainer (1902).

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