Scott Joplin died on 1st April, 1917. The centenary of his death last week seemed a good moment to investigate what the UL and Pendlebury collections held relating to the ‘King of Ragtime’…
A rummage through the secondary card catalogue produced the ‘Fig Leaf Rag’ (A1908.374). This was published in 1908 by John Stillwell Stark, who was Joplin’s first important publisher. It was Stark’s publication of the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ in 1899 that brought Joplin fame as a composer, and he would continue to receive royalties from this throughout his life. The popularity of the ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ is clear from its use in advertising other publications, such as on the cover of this printing of the ‘Leola Two Step’ (A1905.1733). Published in 1905, this piece comes with a warning on the first page against the tendency to rush when playing ragtime – ‘Notice! Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play “rag-time” fast. Author’.
In the introduction to the ‘School of Ragtime’ (A1908.61) Joplin again reminds pianists ‘never play ragtime fast at any time’. There follow several exercises to ‘assist amateur players in giving the “Joplin Rags” that weird and intoxicating effect intended by the composer’.
Over in the Pendlebury audio visual collection, we have a couple of CDs of the piano rags – ‘King of ragtime‘ (CD.B.318) and ‘Piano Music in America 1900-1945‘ (CD.Q.144). Thanks to a recent CD donation, one of the latest additions to the collection of opera recordings is a 1975 recording of Joplin’s ‘Treemonisha‘ (CD.C.916). ‘Treemonisha‘ is Joplin’s second opera, but the only surviving one, as the score of his earlier opera, ‘A Guest of Honor‘, was lost. (The plot of ‘A Guest of Honor’ supposedly centred around a dinner at the White House in 1901 – I was rather surprised to discover that more than one opera had been written on the subject of political dinners…)
Treemonisha was never fully performed in Joplin’s lifetime, and was forgotten about, along with a waning of interest in Joplin’s music generally, as ragtime was upstaged by jazz. However, a rediscovery of ragtime in the 70s saw recordings of the piano rags being released by Joshua Rifkin, and several of Joplin’s compositions being used in the soundtrack of the film ‘The Sting‘, including ‘The Entertainer’ for the opening sequence. Treemonisha finally got its first performance in 1972.
Reflecting this trend, the 70s saw more Joplin arriving at the UL, with many pieces newly arranged for different combinations of instruments such as wind band, or recorder trio…
If you fancy seeking out some more books and scores to do with Joplin, try some of these:
At the Pendlebury:
Scott Joplin / James Haskins with Kathleen Benson (Pb.570.86J.H1)
King of ragtime : Scott Joplin and his era / Edward A. Berlin (Pb.557.20A.B3)
Piano rags. Book one / Scott Joplin (881.D.J6)
At the UL:
They all played ragtime : the true story of an American music / Rudi Blesh & Harriet Janis (M556.c.95.11)
Rags and ragtime : musical history / David A. Jasen & Trebor Jay Tichenor (M556.c.95.128)