I played the piano for years, but was never really good, only competent. I played watered down versions of the classics for my piano lessons, but left to my own devices, there were two composers I loved and wanted to master – one was Eric Satie, whose Gymnopedies I staggered through for my GCSE music exam. The other was Scott Joplin – the 19th Century composer probably known best for ragtime melodies like The Entertainer, which featured in the film The Sting.
I’m sad to say I’ve never managed to play a whole Joplin piece through with any fluency. I was defeated by the key signatures and great two-octave leaps of the left hand. But my mum could play really well, and it was through her, that I first heard his music, when she used to play his beautiful waltz, Bethena. I must have been quite young because somehow I conflated the name of the piece with my mother’s name which is Betony. I remember thinking for a time that the piece was written for her, possibly because my dad had bought home a gift of two anthologies of Joplin’s music.
These were Joshua Rifkin’s arrangements, which I now know were instrumental in the Joplin revival of the 1970s. I used to flick through the pages of those books, just loving the titles – Elite Syncopations, Sunflower Slow Drag, The Strenuous Life.
Bethena is such a brilliant and sorrowful piece of music – the main theme is a haunting, syncopated melody, accentuated by the deep oom-pah-pah bass line. You can hear it here.
Joplin wrote it after his second wife, Freddie Alexander, died. By that time, Joplin had already suffered the death of a child from his first marriage. Freddie was only nineteen when they wed, but died ten weeks after their wedding of pneumonia.
Although Joplin had at one time made money from the publication of Maple Leaf Rag (probably his most famous rag –very difficult to play!), he was in hardship by the time Freddie died, and Bethena didn’t sell and was eventually forgotten. Only now is it considered to be one of his best compositions – music that showed he was both a ragtime composer and a classical composer, which is what he wanted to be. Ragtime, though technically difficult, was never taken seriously by critics. Joplin refuted this, saying, “syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at ‘hateful ragtime’ no longer passes for musical culture.”
What a life Scott Joplin had – he grew up poor in a large family in Texas, taught himself the rudiments of piano in the house of the white woman his mother worked for, became a rail-road labourer, a travelling musician, a pianist in various red-light districts before settling in Sedalia, Missouri.
As a child, I remember reading – or think I remember – that Joplin had died in an asylum of a broken heart when his opera, Treemonisha, was not given any attention. I’ve always carried that story with me.
Treemonisha was really Joplin’s magnum opus, but was never produced in his life time, and in fact, he had to self-publish the score, and the only public airing it ever had was a read-through he also payed for, with him playing the piano throughout. Set on a slave plantation near where Joplin grew up, the plot focuses on an 18 year old black woman, Treemonisha, who leads her community towards salvation, through education.
The score of Treemonisha was lost, and not rediscovered until the 1970s, when it was put on in New York. Since then it’s been produced a handful of times, and its worth as a serious piece of music is finally established. Again, although known as a ragtime opera, it draws on a whole range of American musical idioms – black folk songs, pre-blues music, spirituals, classical music and ragtime. Biographers think Joplin wrote it for Freddie Alexander.
The story of Joplin’s breakdown had always haunted me, so it was strange to read more recent accounts that claim he actually died of insanity related to syphilis. This says something about the amorphous nature of “truth” and biography, because the first version, absorbed as a child, certainly feels more true to me, and I can’t help wonder about the effects of Joplin’s mind of his own “strenuous” life.
Joplin was 49 when he died. He was buried in a pauper’s grave, which finally got a marker in 1974, the year The Sting was released. He died on April 1st 1917.