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Composer of the month #12
November 27th, 2020
Each month, we celebrate a famous composer who imposed their mark on classical music history. In these interviews, they talk about their work and history, and offer you free sheet music of some of their most iconic pieces for your Newzik library! What a nice thought. This month, we're proud to receive French composer Scott Joplin.
Scott was kind enough to prepare a complete setlist for Newzik's subscribers, with all the music we discussed with him. If you are already a Newzik Premium subscriber, go ahead and download it right away!
If you are a free user, choose only the parts you want later in the interview (mind the 15-file import limit of your free account). Subscribe to Newzik for unlimited import! Finally, in case you’re not a Newzician yet, get Newzik for free on the App Store to download these free scores from Scott Joplin!
I don't even know when I was born. This is not that surprising though, I come from a black family in Texas in the 1860s: knowing when I was born is the least of my worries. All I know is that in 1870, I was two years old.
My father, Giles Joplin, grew up as a slave. My mother, Florence Givins, did not. That said, she was a housekeeper and washerwoman for a rich white family - at the time it wasn't very far from slavery. I was always immersed in music, my father was a violinist, my mother a banjo player and singer, and my five brothers and sisters played the guitar, the trumpet or sang.
As for me, it was the piano. My family was rather poor, so I didn't go to school. Instead, I remember accompaniying my mother when she went to clean the neighbours' house. I understand now that it was to prevent me from bothering her, but she would always put me in front of the piano. So, as an autodidact, I learned. I owe her a lot. Despite our poverty, my father gave me a piano and paid for lessons with Julius Weiss, my first music teacher. He taught me composition and harmony, taking me on a journey through European musical genres, particularly opera.
Please Say You Will
This short waltz is the very first work by Scott Joplin, published in 1895. This piece is not a witness to his style - for it is a waltz and not a rag - but is in any case a witness to the composer's classical education: the vocal part requires an almost lyrical interpretation.
One can already perceive Scott Joplin's extremely precise musical technique. It must be acknowledged, however, that this piece could have been written by many composers, especially European ones. It remains, however, a very promising piece for the composer, who was only 27 years old at the time.
I left the family cocoon at a very young age. I just wanted to go for it. I was a cornetist with the Queen City Concert Band and a pianist with the Maple Leaf and the Black 400. The weird thing about playing in a bar is that people don't listen to you. So I used that as an opportunity to shape my style and lay the foundations for ragtime: I syncopated the rhythms, fusing my different sensibilities. I published my very first work in 1895, Please Say You Will. I then resumed my music studies at George R. Smith College in Sedalia. On the door of the college, the was this sign: "Reserved to Black People"
Then, in the late 1890s, I published my first real piano ragtime, Original Rag, which unfortunately was not well received by the public. However, fortune smiled at me because shortly afterwards I published the Maple Leaf Rag, which was one of the best-selling ragtimes in the world! A million copies - I couldn't believe it myself. I was glad I wanted to work with a lawyer on the release of this piece: I made sure to earn 1 cent per sale. It doesn't seem like much, but with a million sales, it was more than enough.
With this success I put my body and soul into ragtime. The style was conquering the country and I was nicknamed "The King of Ragtime"! Thus were born The Entertainer, The Ragtime Dance and Peacherine Rag.
The Maple Leaf Rag
The Maple Leaf Rag in A-flat major is one of Scott Joplin's best-known ragtimes. In fact, it can easily be said to be the most famous ragtime ever. In fact, it quickly became some kind of model for future ragtime composers.
This piece is quite remarkable because from the very first note, Joplin jumps directly into a frantic rhythm that will not stop before the last. What emphasizes the difficulty of this piece is also the off-beat repetition of the melody. The syncopated rhythms are characteristic of Scott Joplin's ragtime and style, as is his AA-BB-A-CC-DD structure, similar to his other pieces.
You will need excellent left hand coordination to overcome this piece (there are sometimes jumps of two octaves!). The "Gladiolus Rag", a later composition by Joplin, is an expanded variant of the "Maple Leaf Rag" that highlights Joplin's increasing musical sophistication, and is usually played at a somewhat slower pace.
There were several women in my life. The first was Bella Hayden, whom I married in 1901 but divorced in 1904. Then, on June 14, 1904, I married Freddie Alexander. She was beautiful, her curly hair as black as night gave a serious air to her sparkling youth. A few months later, on September 10, she died of pneumonia and the flu. I dedicated a piece to her, a waltz, Bethena, in which I relate my relationship with Freddie. I don't know why I wrote it; I can't play it. It's too hard, too sad.
It marks the beginning of a difficult period: my career declined and my financial situation deteriorated, being very badly paid despite the success of my works. In 1907, after a few years in Saint Louis doing odd jobs for a living, I decided to go to Chicago to work with Louis Chauvin on a slow rag called Heliotrope Bouquet. Then I went to New York to seek funding for my opera Treemonisha. There I met my friend Joseph Lamb - who became one of the greatest ragtime composers.
While I had published all my works with Stark, I wanted to switch publishers. So I went to Seminary Music, where I published my beginner's ragtime method, School of Ragtime.
Sun Flower Slow Drag
The Sun Flower Slow Rag, published in 1901 and at the time presented as the "little sister of the Maple Leaf Rag", is a piece firmly rooted in the style for which Scott Joplin was famous, even though it was co-composed with Scott Hayden. It is a piece full of gaiety, a real ray of sunshine, typical of Joplin's joyful compositions. This joy in the music can be attributed to the fact that at the same time Scott Joplin was courting his first wife, Belle, who was the widow of Hayden's brother.
With a structure quite typical of Scott Joplin's rags and a coda remarkably similar to that of The Entertainer, this 4-minute piece has absolutely nothing to envy to Joplin's ultra-famous compositions.
In 1911, I published my opera Treemonisha. This piece is particularly close to my heart. I put a piece of my story in it, I pay homage to my mother and to Freddie.
Treemonisha - the main character in the opera - is the only educated African-American woman in her village, reflecting my belief that racial equality will come from education. Let us educate, let us cultivate, let us enlighten, and never again will humans treat other humans as their inferiors. Perhaps this is utopian, but we must give black people the chance to educate themselves, rather than just park them in poor neighbourhoods and let them die of despair.
Twenty years ago, when the illustrious Czech artist Dvorak came to live in the United States, all expenses paid, I had to finance my opera myself. I was poor, and yet I had to pay for the publication of my work, as well as for its reduction for piano and voice. All my life I played in bars and brothels to be able to feed myself. My music, which I considered classical, was called "saloon music". And my masterpiece, my only opera - I never saw its creation.
With Treemonisha's scores close to my heart, I sank into illness. One thought haunts me: was I, in the eyes of all, just a black man playing the piano?
Treemonisha is Scott Joplin's only opera. It pays homage to his mother and second wife Freddie, and addresses the issue of racial equality and features a black woman guiding an entire population.
Beyond being a resolutely political work, Treemonisha demonstrates an interesting musical complexity. Indeed, it is often presented as a "Ragtime Opera". However, it is much more than that. If we find the syncopated figures so dear to Scott Joplin, we also hear slave songs and gospel mixed with salon music, operetta and European opera.
This work is clearly the centrepiece of Scott Joplin's repertoire. It conveys a double challenge: on the one hand it is a sort of "melting pot" of all the genres that influenced Scott Joplin, on the other hand it is a witness to his time, treating an issue that is still unresolved today.
Some said that Scott Joplin was one of the best pianists in the world, others that he played slowly but with great precision. In 1916, Scott Joplin's health deteriorated dramatically. He had been suffering from syphilis for probably twenty years, and fell into schizophrenia. He ended his life in a psychiatric hospital in New York City, where he died on April 1, 1917, at the age of 48. Although he was recognised as a ragtime genius, ragtime itself was not recognised as a legitimate style. Yet Scott Joplin injected into his compositions the care of a refined musical education, largely inspired by European sounds and markedly Chopinian in style.
It was not until 1972 that the concert version of Treemonisha was premiered, and 1975 for the opera version. He was an exceptional musician.
We will finally know his date of birth, ironically, on his epitaph: November 24, 1868.
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