Welcome back to another week of Classical in Conversation, and you’ve arrived just in time! It’s time to take a look at the life of the King of Ragtime himself, Scott Joplin.
A pretty huge title to have earned from such a short career, but it’s undisputable that Joplin is the only man for it. He wrote over 100 ragtime tunes (with a ballet and couple of operas thrown in, of course!), two of which every classical musician should be familiar with. But we’ll get on to those later…
Scott Joplin was an African-American composer and pianist born in 1868 to a musical family of railway labourers from Arkansas. Joplin managed to escape the railway life to pursue his dream of becoming a musician and moved to Missouri after a short stint as a travelling musician. Little is known about this period of Joplin’s life. We know that being a black pianist at the time meant that opportunities for performing were difficult to come by, and some of the only regular gigs he would have been able to secure were at the church and in the red-light districts of the city.
The Maple Leaf Movement
But it was a little song called “Maple Leaf Rag” that would alter the course of Joplin’s life, and the life of ragtime, forever! It was in 1895 that Joplin wrote this light, energetic and fast paced tune - it is archetypal rag, that’s for sure! It has all the defining characteristics of the style: that very specific type of syncopation which has us feeling as though the melody is always running away from us, that exceptionally quick stride technique in the left hand, and that strong offbeat emphasis. Not to mention that the melodies are SO. CATCHY.
The publication of this song afforded Scott Joplin a steady income for life, and in 1899 he signed in a deal with a publisher to receive a 1% royalty on all sales of his influential composition. Though we cannot be certain of this fact, it is thought that Scott Joplin was the first musician ever to sell 1 million copies of a piece of instrumental music. If true, this is certainly an enormous achievement.
We have the great pleasure of including “Maple Leaf Rag” in our Grade 8 Classical Piano syllabus!
We Are Entertained
Another instantly recognisable Joplin jaunt is “The Entertainer”. Written in 1902, this classic rag rose to prominence again in the 70s for a brief rag-revival! It’s definitely another rag we’d recommend learning yourself – though be warned that you will be in for a challenge! We've featured this legendary piece in the RSL Classical Violin Grade 3 syllabus, to give the not-so-experienced violinist a chance to have a go. We can't wait to hear your performances in the exam room!
Joplin died tragically at the age of 48, and some argue that with the death of the King of Ragtime came the death of ragtime itself. Scott was such a prominent figure in the genre, such an unrivalled pioneer and leader of the style, that it simply could not sustain its place in mainstream music without him. Ragtime laid the foundations for genres to come like jazz, stride and big band swing. It is hard to imagine music today without the influence of Joplin’s rag’s, and so to him we will be eternally grateful.
We’ve loved delving deeper into the life of Scott Joplin this week, and he’s joined an iconic list of composers featured in our Classical in Conversation blog. Check out previous week’s which include jazz sensation Nikki Iles, dreamer Ludovico Einaudi and pioneer Florence Price.