Scott Joplin (c. July 1867 and January 1868 – 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 traveled 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.
His composition in 1899 of the "Maple Leaf Rag" 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. He also managed to fit in classes in composition and counterpoint at one of the nation's first all-black academic institutions, the George R. Smith College for Negroes in Sedalia, Missouri.
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."
Joplin moved to Sedalia, Missouri in 1894 and began working as a pianist in the Maple Leaf Club and the Black 400, social clubs for "respectable gentlemen". (By 1900 the city was the fifth-largest in the state, with about 15,000 people.) He gained a reputation as a well-respected pianist, and began composing songs and teaching music. One of his earliest works in 1896 was "The Great Crush Collision March", a "special... early essay in ragtime", written after a staged train crash in McLennan County, Texas, at which Joplin may have been present.
In 1899, Joplin married Belle, the sister-in-law of collaborator Scott Hayden and sold what would soon become one of his most famous pieces, "Maple Leaf Rag", to John Stark & Son, a Sedalia music publisher. It was an immediate success and was ragtime's first hit, in addition to being the first great instrumental music hit in America. It sold 75,000 copies in about six months. It also served 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.
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.
The combination of classical music, the musical atmosphere present around Texarkana (including work songs, gospel hymns, spirituals and dance music) and Joplin's natural ability has been cited as contributing significantly to the invention of a new style which blended both African-American musical styles with European forms and melodies, and which first became celebrated in the 1890s; ragtime.
When Joplin was learning the piano, serious musical circles condemned ragtime because of its association with the vulgar and inane songs "cranked out by the tune-smiths of Tin Pan Alley." As a composer Joplin refined ragtime, elevating it above the low and unrefined form played by the "wandering honky-tonk pianists... playing mere dance music" of popular imagination. This new art form, the classic rag, combined Afro-American folk music's syncopation and nineteenth-century European romanticism, with its harmonic schemes and its march-like tempos. In the words of one critic, "ragtime was basically... an Afro-American version of the polka, or its analog, the Sousa-style march." With this as a foundation, Joplin intended his compositions to be played exactly as he wrote them – without improvisation. Joplin wrote his rags as "classical" music in miniature form in order to raise ragtime above its "cheap bordello" origins and produced work which Opera historian Elise Kirk described as "...more tuneful, contrapuntal, infectious, and harmonically colorful than any others of his era."
It has been speculated that Joplin's achievements were influenced by his classically trained German music teacher Julius Weiss, who may have brought a polka rhythmic sensibility from the old country to the 11-year old. As Curtis put it "The educated German could open up the door to a world of learning and music of which young Joplin was largely unaware."
Joplin's first, and most significant hit the "Maple Leaf Rag" was described as the "archetype" of the classic rag, influencing subsequent rag composers for at least 12 years after its initial publication thanks to its rhythmic patterns, melody lines, and harmony, although with the exception of Joseph Lamb they generally failed to enlarge upon it.
The opera's setting is a former slave community in an isolated forest near Joplin's childhood town Texarkana in September 1884. The plot centers on an 18 year old woman Treemonisha who is taught to read by a white woman, and then leads her community against the influence of conjurers who prey on ignorance and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps' nest when her friend Remus rescues her. The community realizes the value of education and the liability of their ignorance before choosing her as their teacher and leader.
Joplin wrote both the score and the libretto for the opera, which largely follows the form of European opera with many conventional arias, ensembles and choruses. In addition the themes of superstition and mysticism which are evident in Treemonisha are common in the operatic tradition, and certain aspects of the plot echo devices in the work of the German composer Richard Wagner (of which Joplin was aware); a sacred tree under which Treemonisha is found recalls the tree from which Siegmund takes his enchanted sword in Die Walküre, and the retelling of the heroine's origins echos aspects of the opera Siegfried. In addition, African-American folk tales also influence the story, with the wasp nest incident being similar to the story of Br'er Rabbit and the briar patch.
Treemonisha is not a ragtime opera because Joplin employed the styles of ragtime and other black music sparingly, using them to convey "racial character", and to celebrate the music of his childhood at the end of the 19th Century. The opera has been seen as a valuable record of rural black music from 1870s-1890s re-created by a "skilled and sensitive participant".
Berlin speculates about parallels between the plot and Joplin's own life. He notes that Lottie Joplin (the composer's third wife) saw a connection between the character Treemonisha's wish to lead her people out of ignorance, and a similar desire in the composer. In addition, it has been speculated that Treemonisha represents Freddie, Joplin's second wife, because the date of the opera's setting was likely to have been the month of her birth.
At the time of the opera's publication in 1911, the American Musician and Art Journal praised it as "an entirely new form of operatic art". Later critics have also praised the opera as occupying a special place in American history, with its heroine "a startlingly early voice for modern civil rights causes, notably the importance of education and knowledge to African American advancement." Curtis's conclusion is similar: "In the end, Treemonisha offered a celebration of literacy, learning, hard work, and community solidarity as the best formula for advancing the race.". Berlin describes it as a "fine opera, certainly more interesting than most operas then being written in the United States", but then states that Joplin's own libretto showed the composer "was not a competent dramatist" with the book not up to the same quality as the music.