WQXR, America’s leading classical music station, celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of Scott Joplin, the iconic American composer and pianist immortalized as “The King of Ragtime,” with “Scott Joplin at 150”: a live performance and webcast at The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space on November 29. Beginning at 7pm, the event will feature an eclectic line-up of remarkable artists, including pianists Dave Burrell, Roy Eaton, and Joshua Rifkin; soprano Laquita Mitchell; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tyehimba Jess; and pianist-host Jade Simmons.
Scott Joplin left an indelible mark on the history of American music, straddling the worlds of classical and popular music while prefiguring the advent of jazz. During his brief career, the prolific composer and pianist wrote some of the world’s most recognized melodies as well as lesser-known gems for the ballet and even the opera Treemonisha – much of which was composed during the decade he spent in New York City.
Joplin was born on November 24, 1868, near Texarkana, Texas, and died April 1, 1917, in New York City. The son of a freeborn mother and ex-slave father, he grew up in poverty and was extraordinarily gifted as a singer, pianist and violinist. In the late 1870s he was tutored in classical music theory and keyboard technique by a German-born scholar named Julius Weiss. As a teenager he left home and spent several years traveling around the country as an itinerant musician, finally settling in Sedalia, Missouri, in 1894. Here Joplin continued to study music, joined a cornet band, formed an eight-man touring vocal group, and began composing seriously. He lived in Sedalia until 1901 when he moved to St. Louis.
Joplin composed more than 40 rags, waltzes and marches for piano including The Maple Leaf Rag, The Entertainer, Euphonic Sounds, The Easy Winners, Elite Syncopations, Wall Street Rag, and Solace. He also composed two operas, A Guest of Honor (now lost) and Treemonisha; a ballet; several songs for voice and piano; and a number of other works, including a piano concerto, that have also since been lost.
It was the publication in 1899 of Joplin’s composition The Maple Leaf Rag that brought him fame. Sales of the sheet music exploded and the piece became a huge instrumental hit, both in the piano version and in arrangements for dance bands and brass bands. The royalties from sales provided Joplin with a steady income throughout his life.
Joplin moved to New York City in 1907, primarily to complete and produce his opera Treemonisha, although he also continued composing for piano and produced some of his finest piano works during his ten years in New York. Treemonisha was completed in 1910 and when he was not able to interest a publisher, Joplin self-published a piano-vocal score in 1911. He also worked to secure a production of the opera and staged several “backers’ auditions,” but there was no full staging during his lifetime; in fact, the first full production of Treemonisha was in 1972. Mitchell will sing the aria “The Sacred Tree” from the opera at The Greene Space event.
There have been several Joplin revivals over the years. The first came in 1950 with the publication of a book by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, They All Played Ragtime, which explored the history of ragtime and pioneers like Joplin, James Scott, and Joseph Lamb. The book’s success generated many new fans of ragtime. In the 1960s – a number of musicians, including William Bolcom, William Albright, and Joshua Rifkin, discovered Joplin – and their interest resulted in the 1970 release of Rifkin’s Scott Joplin: Piano Rags on Nonesuch Records. It sold more than a million copies and suddenly Joplin was again in vogue. In 1971, The Collected Works of Scott Joplin was published by the New York Public Library, followed in 1973 by Gunther Schuller’s Joplin recordings with the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble. The movie The Sting was released in that same year, whereupon the film’s version of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” reached number 3 on the Billboard “Hot 100.” In 1976, Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music.
Joplin’s music remains popular to this day and he has been honored with festivals in his home states of Texas and Missouri as well as by the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Foundation. At the site of his grave at St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst, NY, a tribute concert is held every April 1, on the anniversary of his death. Many people feel, however, that Joplin’s music is still vastly underappreciated and that it is often misinterpreted as being simply happy-go-lucky, good-time music to be played as fast as possible. In fact, Joplin intended his compositions to be appreciated as serious, artistic works, to be played more deliberately and with greater care than they were during his lifetime – and still are, all too often, today.
Several recordings of Scott Joplin’s complete piano music have been made over the years, but there was no complete recording by an African-American pianist until 2017, when, to mark the 100th anniversary of Joplin’s death, the complete piano works were released in a new recording by William Appling. Appling was a renowned African-American choral conductor, educator, and pianist who came to Joplin late in his life. After discovering the composer, he was inspired to spend his final years recording Joplin’s piano works and championing his music. Appling also planned to mount a production of Treemonisha, although this dream still remained unfulfilled at his death in 2008.
While William Appling’s recordings were widely appreciated and received excellent reviews, two members of the team that worked on the Appling project – Bill McClelland, the producer of Appling’s last recording, and classical music publicist Albert Imperato, a founding partner of 21C Media Group – decided to continue promoting Joplin’s music. They were frustrated at how little had been done to honor this great composer on the centennial of his death last year, particularly in New York City where Joplin spent the last ten years of his life. To mark the 150th anniversary of Joplin’s birth, on November 24, 2018, the two worked to galvanize interest in planning Joplin programs in New York. Imperato and McClelland are hopeful the two events scheduled this month – a Joplin tribute concert at Jazz at Lincoln Center featuring pianist Terry Waldo (Nov 26) and WQXR’s program at The Greene Space (Nov 29) – will inspire other artists and organizations to continue the celebrations throughout the anniversary year.