Friday, February 28, 2014

Composer Study - Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin was born in Northeast Texas around 1867, just outside of Texarkana, and died April 1, 1917 in New York of dementia. He was an American composer and pianist, who achieved fame for his ragtime compositions, and was dubbed "The King of Ragtime."


During his brief career, Joplin wrote over 40 original ragtime pieces, two operas, and one ragtime ballet.

Maple Leaf Rag (2:58)

This piece, composed in 1899, was one of Joplin's early works, and became the model for ragtime compositions by subsequent composers for at least 12 years thanks to its rhythmic patterns, melody lines, and harmony.

As a result, Joplin was called the "King of Ragtime." The piece gave Joplin a steady - if unspectacular - income for the rest of his life.

Despite ragtime's decline after Joplin's death in 1917, the Maple Leaf Rag continued to be recorded by many well-known artists. The ragtime revival of the 1970s brought it back to mainstream public notice once again.

Sophia thought: It's quick. I liked that it was so fast. I don't like it as much as The Entertainer. That's the song I was thinking of when I first heard this one.

Olivia thought: It's interesting. I'm not sure I like this type of music. I don't think I liked anything about it.

The Entertainer (4:42)

One of the classics of ragtime, The Entertainer returned to top international prominence as part of the ragtime revival in the 1970s, when it was used as the theme music for the 1973 Oscar-winning film The Sting.

Composer and pianist Marvin Hamlisch's adaptation reached #3 on the Billboard pop chart and spent a week at #1 on the easy listening chart in 1974.The Sting was set in the 1930s, a full generation after the end of ragtime's mainstream popularity, thus giving the mistaken impression that ragtime music was popular at that time.

The Recording Industry Association of America ranked it #10 on its "Songs of the Century" list.

Sophia thought: It's like I can hear what he normally sounds like when he plays faster. It sounds like he's having to restrain himself when he goes slower. I like that there are same parts in it, but he plays them differently. I'm not sure if I like all the crescendos. I like the first part better (more than the second part around 3:00). It kind of goes all over the place.

Olivia thought: I like this one. It's a little bit fast and little bit slow. It's quiet. I like that it changes between loud and soft. 

Elite Syncopations (3:59)

This piece shows Joplin's potential for innovation. Although the heading simply states "Not fast" - fast in this instance must be seen as a relative term. It is likely that many of the pianists at that time were ragging any tune they could, and playing it at breakneck speeds to show off their skill.

It has been widely agreed that Joplin's intention was that his pieces not be played at outlandish speeds, but in a controlled manner appropriate for the content. "Not Fast" did not necessarily mean "Slow."

Sophia thought: It's quiet...I don't really like that. I like the ones that he wrote that have more of a beat.

Olivia thought: This reminds me of the kid on Charlie Brown who plays the piano. I like this one. It's calming. 

The Strenuous Life (5:16)

In 1900, war hero and soon-to-be Vice President Theodore Roosevelt published his collection called The Strenuous Life. In it he advocated that Americans should not rest on their well-earned laurels an be be complacent, but that they should always work hard to accomplish more. He detested idleness, thus the title of this collection of speeches and essays starting with an address he made in 1899.

Within a year President William McKinley was assassinated, and Roosevelt was now in charge of the country. In 1902, Roosevelt looked to African-American leader Booker T. Washington as an advisor for appointments of black personnel in his government.

It was the fact that Roosevelt actually sat down with Washington for a White House lunch that outraged many parts of the country, yet fortified others. Joplin was inspired by this show of strength, and named his most-recently composed rag The Strenuous Life in honor of Roosevelt.

Sophia thought: It's something that you'd hear at a dance. I don't like it that much. But, I could listen to while knitting - it was easy to listen to and not distracting.

Olivia thought: I don't really like this one because it's a little too slow and quiet. I guess it was relaxing.

Palm Leaf Rag (3:30)

This piece is the first rag that Joplin sold to a Chicago publisher. It provided a new distribution base and a fresh audience for his works, which had already reached far by reputation. Palm Leaf Rag is smooth and graceful and contains sophisticated syncopation as well as some asymmetry.

Sophia thought: It's pretty...and it is smooth. I like it better than the one I just listened to (The Strenuous Life). Maybe it goes a little faster - it flows more evenly.

Olivia thought: Not my favorite. All the songs kind of blend in. The way he's kind of playing the notes. 

The Chrysanthemum - An Afro-American Intermezzo (4:31)

Following the failed opera tour, Joplin went to Chicago for a few months, and then returned to Arkansas to visit relatives. In Arkansas he met Freddie Alexander, a 19-year-old woman, and was so taken with her that he dedicated The Chrysanthemum to her.

Probably because ragtime was considered in many circles to be a disreputable form, Joplin sought to endow this rag with more dignity by portraying it as “An Afro-American Intermezzo.”

Sophia thought: It's kind of a lonely piece. It's sweet...and sounds pretty.

Olivia thought: It reminds me of the book named The Chrysantemum...it has the same title. I liked the beginning the most. 

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