Scott Joplin (c. 1867 – April 1, 1917) was an American composer and pianist. He achieved fame for his unique ragtime compositions, and was dubbed the "King of Ragtime." During his brief career, Joplin wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. One of his first pieces, the "Maple Leaf Rag", became ragtime's first and most influential hit, and has been recognized as the archetypal rag.
He was born into a musical African-American family of laborers in eastern Texas, and developed his musical knowledge with the help of local teachers. During the late 1880s he travelled around the American South as an itinerant musician, and went to Chicago for the World's Fair of 1893 which played a major part in making ragtime a national craze by 1897.
Publication of his "Maple Leaf Rag" in 1899 brought him fame and had a profound influence on subsequent writers of ragtime. It also brought the composer a steady income for life with royalties of one cent per sale, equivalent to 26 cents per sale in current value. During his lifetime, Joplin did not reach this level of success again and frequently had financial problems, which contributed to the loss of his first opera, A Guest of Honor. He continued to write ragtime compositions, and moved to New York in 1907. He attempted to go beyond the limitations of the musical form which made him famous, without much monetary success. His second opera, Treemonisha, was not received well at its partially staged performance in 1915. He died from complications of tertiary syphilis in 1917.
Joplin's music was rediscovered and returned to popularity in the early 1970s with the release of a million-selling album of Joplin's rags recorded by Joshua Rifkin, followed by the Academy Award–winning movie The Sting which featured several of his compositions, such as "The Entertainer". The opera Treemonisha was finally produced in full to wide acclaim in 1972. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Scott Joplin, the second of six children, was born in eastern Texas, outside of Texarkana, to Giles Joplin and Florence Givins. His birth, like many others, represented the first post-slavery generation of African-Americans. Although for many years his birth date was accepted as November 24, 1868, research has revealed that this is almost certainly inaccurate – the most likely approximate date being the second half of 1867. In addition to Scott, other children of Giles and Florence were Monroe, Robert, Rose, William, and Johnny. His father was an ex-slave from North Carolina and his mother was a freeborn African American woman from Kentucky. After moving to Texarkana a few years after Joplin was born, Giles began working as a common laborer for the railroad. Florence did laundry and cleaning for additional income. Joplin was given a rudimentary musical education by his musical family, Florence playing the banjo and singing, and Giles playing and teaching the violin to Joplin, Robert and William; at the age of seven he was allowed to play piano in both a neighbor's house and at the home of an attorney while his mother worked.
At some point in the early 1880s, Giles Joplin left the family for another woman, leaving Florence to provide for her children through domestic work. Biographer Susan Curtis speculated that his mother's support of Joplin's musical education was an important causal factor in this separation; his father argued that it took the boy away from practical employment which would have supplemented the family income.
According to a family friend, the young Joplin was serious and ambitious. While in elementary school, he spent his after-school hours studying music and learning to play piano. While a few local teachers aided him, he received most of his serious music education from Julius Weiss, a German-Jewish music professor who had immigrated to the U.S. Weiss had studied music at a university in Germany and was listed in town records as a "Professor of music." Impressed by Joplin's talent, and realizing his family's dire straits, Weiss taught him free of charge. He tutored the 11-year-old Joplin until he was 16, during which time he introduced him to folk and classical music, including opera, sometimes playing the classics for him along with describing the great composers. Weiss supported the young composer's ambitions and helped his mother acquire a used piano from another student. Joplin, according to his wife Lottie, never forgot Weiss, and in his later years, when he achieved fame as a composer, sent his former teacher "gifts of money when he was old and ill," until Weiss died.
Joplin played music at church gatherings and for non-religious entertainments such as African-American dances. Although it is likely he played well-known dances of the era, "waltzes, polkas, and schottisches", eye-witnesses recalled him playing his own compositions; "He did not have to play anybody else's music. He made up his own, and it was beautiful; he just got his music out of the air.
In the late 1880s, having performed at various local events as a teenager, Joplin chose to give up his only steady employment as a laborer with the railroad and left Texarkana to work as traveling musician. He was soon to discover that there were few opportunities for black pianists, however; besides the church, brothels were one of the few options for obtaining steady work. Joplin played pre-ragtime 'jig-piano' in various red-light districts throughout the mid-South.
By the early 1890s, Ragtime had become popular among African-Americans in the cities of St. Louis and Chicago. In 1893 large numbers of African-American musicians, including Joplin, made their way to Chicago to perform for the visitors at the World's Fair. They found work in the cafés, saloons and brothels that lined the fair and the city's seedy and corrupt "Tenderloin" district. While in Chicago, Joplin formed his first band and began arranging music for the group to perform. Although the World's Fair was "not congenial to African Americans," he still found that his music, as well as that of other black performers, was popular with visitors. The Exposition was attended by 27 million Americans and had a profound effect on many areas of American cultural life, including ragtime. Although specific information is sparse, numerous sources have credited the Chicago World Fair with spreading the popularity of ragtime. By 1897 ragtime had become a national craze in American cities, and was described by the St. Louis Dispatch as "a veritable call of the wild, which mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people.
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 at until 1904 as Joplin was making a living as a touring musician.
In the 1890s, the town had a population of approximately 14,000 and was the centre of commerce and transport for the region with the town's saloons and brothels of the red-light district on Main St, nicknamed "Battle Row", provided employment for musicians, and it is likely that Joplin worked in this area. The town was attractive for other reasons; race-relations between Whites and Blacks in Sedalia were relatively good, especially when compared to other similar communities in Missouri in this period, there is no record of public lynchings in the area 1890s, there were several prominent black citizens who held minor positions in the Republican Party, and the George R. Smith College, one of the nation's first colleges for the education of blacks, opened in 1894. In addition, Sedalia was described by a black resident of the town at the time as the "musical town of the West", because music was a major leisure-time activity.
Front cover of the third edition of the "Maple Leaf Rag" sheet music
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". Also, 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 "Crush Collision March" which commemorated a planned train crash on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad on 15 September which he may have witnessed. The March was described by one of Joplin's biographers as a "special... early essay in ragtime", While in Sedalia he was teaching piano to students who included Arthur Marshall, composer and pianist Brun Campbell, and Scott Hayden, all of whom became ragtime composers in their own right. 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, and biographer Edward A. Berlin notes that it was unlikely that a small college for African-Americans would be able to provide such a course.
In 1899, Joplin married Belle, the sister-in-law of collaborator Scott Hayden. Although there were hundreds of rags in print by the time of the "Maple Leaf Rag's" publication, Joplin was not far behind. His first published rag was "Original Rags" (March 1899) 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; Brun Campbell claimed to have seen the manuscript of the work in around 1898. The exact circumstances which lead to the Maple Leaf Rag's publication are unknown, and there are various different versions of the event which contradict each other. After several unsuccessful approaches to publishers, Joplin signed a contract with John Stillwell Stark a retailer of musical instruments who later became his most important publisher, on 10 August 1899 for a 1% royalty on all sales of the rag, with a minimum sales price of 25c. It is possible that the rag was named after the Maple Leaf Club, although there is no direct evidence to prove the link, and there were many other possible sources for the name in and around Sedalia at the time.
In 1907, Scott Joplin moved to New York City, which he believed was the best place to find a producer for a new opera. After his move to New York, Joplin met Lottie Stokes, whom he married in 1909. 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," the public being not yet ready for "crude" black musical forms, so different from the style of European grand opera of that time.
The audience, including potential backers, was indifferent and walked out. Scott writes that "after a disastrous single performance ... Joplin suffered a breakdown. He was bankrupt, discouraged, and worn out." He concludes that few American artists of his generation faced such obstacles: "Treemonisha went unnoticed and unreviewed, largely because Joplin had abandoned commercial music in favor of art music, a field closed to African Americans." In fact, it was not until the 1970s that the opera received a full theatrical staging.
In 1914, Joplin and Lottie self-published his "Magnetic Rag". using the name the "Scott Joplin Music Company" which had been formed the previous December. Biographer Vera Brodsky Lawrence speculates that Joplin was aware of his advancing deterioration due to syphilis and was "consciously racing against time." She noted that 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 madness In January 1917, he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital, a mental institution. He died there on April 1, 1917 of dementia. After Joplin's death at the age of just 49, from advanced syphilis, he was buried in a pauper's grave that remained unmarked for 57 years. His grave at Saint Michaels Cemetery, in East Elmhurst, was finally honored in 1974.
Scott Joplin House in St Louis, Missouri
There have been many claims about the sales of the "Maple Leaf Rag", for example that Joplin was the first musician to sell 1 million copies of a piece of instrumental music. Joplin's first biographer, Rudi Blesh wrote that during its first six months the piece sold 75,000 copies, and became "the first great instrumental sheet music hit in America". However, research by Joplin's later biographer Edward A. Berlin demonstrated that this was not the case; the initial print-run of 400 took one year to sell, and under the terms of Joplin's contract with a 1% royalty would have given Joplin an income of $4, or approximately $105 in current value). Later sales were steady and would have given Joplin an income which would have covered his expenses; in 1909 estimated sales would have given him an income of $600 annually (approximately $14,618 in current prices).
The "Maple Leaf Rag" did serve 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", not least by himself on the covers of his own work, such as "The Easy Winners" and "Elite Syncopations".
After the Joplins' move to St. Louis in early 1900, they had a baby daughter who died only a few months after birth. Joplin's relationship with his wife was difficult as she had no interest in music; they eventually separated and then divorced. 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".
In June 1904, Joplin married Freddie Alexander of Little Rock, Arkansas, the young woman to whom he had dedicated "The Chrysanthemum" (1904). She died on September 10, 1904 of complications resulting from a cold, ten weeks after their wedding. Joplin's first work copyrighted after Freddie's death, "Bethena" (1905), was described by one biographer as "an enchantingly beautiful piece that is among the greatest of ragtime waltzes".
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 not certain how many productions were staged, or even if this was an all-black show or a racially mixed production (which would have been unusual for 1903). During the tour, either in Springfield, Illinois, or Pittsburg, Kansas, someone associated with the company stole the box office receipts. Joplin could not meet the company’s payroll or pay for the company’s lodgings at a theatrical boarding house. It is believed the score for A Guest of Honor was lost and perhaps destroyed because of non-payment of the company's boarding house bill.
Scott Joplin (Texarkana, Texas, Estados Unidos, 24 de noviembre de 1868 - Manhattan, Nueva York, Estados Unidos, 1 de abril de 1917) fue un compositor y pianista estadounidense, una de las figuras más importantes en el desarrollo del ragtime clásico, para el que deseaba un estatus similar al de la música seria proveniente de Europa y la posibilidad de admitir composiciones extensas como óperas y sinfonías.
Scott Joplin, a diferencia de otros músicos contemporáneos, tuvo una formación musical clásica muy sólida, lo que se materializó en su tendencia a obtener un equilibrio formal basándose en el uso de tonalidades muy próximas entre sí.
Sus rags se valen de distintos ritmos e incluyen, generalmente, cuatro temas de 16 compases repetidos, con introducción y modulación antes del tercer tema; tras la profusión de sonidos irregulares y arpegiados siempre se encuentra en sus rags una melodía de carácter pegadizo que sigue el clásico patrón de frase antecedente-consecuente, dividiéndose así la melodía de ocho compases en dos partes relacionadas entre sí. Por lo demás, sus rags carecen de pasajes de desarrollo.
Scott Joplin no grabó nunca audios, aunque sí algunos piano rolls a finales de 1915 o principios de 1916; su legado, por tanto, se centra casi exclusivamente en sus partituras, diseñadas "para una ejecución milimétrica y minuciosa por parte del artista".
Scott Joplin fue el segundo de seis hijos. Nació en la parte oriental de Texas, fuera de Texarkana, de Jiles Joplin y Florence Givins. Aunque por muchos años su fecha de nacimiento fue aceptada como 24 de noviembre de 1868, el investigador moderno de la historia del ragtime, Edward A. Berlin ha revelado que casi con seguridad tal dato es inexacto. La fecha más probable sería la segunda mitad del año 1867. Su padre fue un esclavo liberto de Carolina del Norte y su madre una mujer libre (es decir, que nunca fue esclava), originaria de Kentucky. Después de mudarse a Texarkana, pocos años después de que naciera Scott, Jiles empezó a trabajar como un peón más para el ferrocarril. Florence trabajó como empleada doméstica y lavandera para que la familia recibiera ingresos adicionales. Berlin escribe que "aquella era una familia amante de la música (Jiles tocaba el violín y Florence el banjo), y proveyeron a sus hijos de una educación musical elemental". Por ejemplo, a los ocho años de edad, se le permitió a Scott tocar el piano en casa de un vecino, y en la casa de un abogado mientras su madre trabajaba haciendo la limpieza.
Muestra su habilidad musical a temprana edad y aprende a tocar la guitarra y la corneta; a los ocho años se inicia su afición por el piano. Estudió música por primera vez en Texarkana con un profesor de música alemán (Julius Weiss), impresionado por sus primeras improvisaciones cuando tenía once años. La base de sus clases era el estudio de la armonía de acuerdo con la tradición europea.
Tras morir su madre en 1882, Joplin, ante la presión por parte de su padre para que aprendiese un oficio, abandona el hogar familiar. Se instaló itinerantemente en el valle del Mississippi y trabajó como pianista en bares y prostíbulos, lugares donde empleaban a la mayoría de los músicos de raza negra. Sus experiencias musicales de esos años le sirvieron en el futuro como inspiración rítmica y melódica.
Comenzó a vivir en 1885 en la región de San Luis-Sedalia, donde conoció a otros pioneros del ragtime como Tom Turpin, Arthur Marshall y Louis Chauvin. Joplin estudió en la Universidad George Smith para alumnos negros, donde siguió cursos de armonía y composición. En 1893 actuó, con una orquesta propia en la que tocaba el piano y la corneta, en la World's Columbian Exposition de Chicago, y un año después se trasladó a Sedalia (Misuri).
En 1895 publicó sus primeras canciones, temas como "A picture of Her Face" y "Please Say You Will". Fue en Sedalia donde publicó, en 1899, Original Rags y Maple Leaf Rag (su obra más importante y uno de los rags más famosos que se han editado, que llegó a vender cientos de miles de copias de su partitura); también abrió un centro de enseñanza. El éxito como compositor le llevó a componer más de cincuenta obras para piano entre 1895 y 1917.
En 1902, fruto de su interés en expandir las posibilidades del género, compuso el Ragtime Dance, un ballet de veinte minutos de duración con narración incluida, con base en los bailes de la sociedad negra del momento. Comercialmente, fue un fracaso, lo que llevó a que en 1903 su editor musical se negara a publicar A Guest of Honor, la primera ópera de Joplin (aun así, se estrenó en San Luis el 18 de febrero de 1903).
En 1906 se desplazó a Chicago y en 1907 se trasladó a Nueva York, donde se asentaría definitivamente dos años más tarde. Cuatro años después publicó, con su propio dinero, la ópera Treemonisha, obra con la que intentó ir más allá del ragtime, para crear una ópera exclusiva de los afroamericanos.4 Se estrenó en 1915 en una versión de concierto, sin decorados, pero fracasó de cara al público; este hecho provocó en el compositor una depresión que le llevó a sufrir diversos trastornos mentales y problemas físicos de coordinación.
Enfermo de neurosífilis, originada por la sífilis, ingresó en 1916 en el Hospital estatal de Manhattan, donde terminaría falleciendo.
Su música resurgió cuando varios de sus rags, entre ellos The Entertainer, aparecieron en la película El golpe (1973) y Treemonisha se estrenó con éxito en 1975 con la Houston Grand Opera.
Otras composiciones de Joplin son Peacherine Rag (1901), Palm Leaf Rag-A Slow Rag (1903), Euphonic Sounds (1909) y una obra que contiene explicaciones sobre su estilo: The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano (1909).