In addition to this year marking the Debussy centenary, November 24th 2018 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Scott Joplin, composer of some of the most popular piano pieces ever written.
In this review I will be looking at the recently published volume, Ragtime by Scott Joplin, by Jean Kleeb, appearing as part of Bärenreiter’s Ready to Play series.
But first, a few words about the importance of Joplin himself…
Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
While Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano solos The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag and known and enjoyed by music-lovers the world over, few perhaps are acquainted with the details of his relatively short life.
Joplin was born into a musical family. His father was an ex-slave turned railroad worker who played the violin, while his mother Florence worked as a cleaner, and was a singer and banjo player. The young Joplin was able to play piano while his mother cleaned, and showed an early interest in music.
Most of Joplin’s musical education came from a local tutor Eric Tauber, who recognised the boy’s talent, realised the family’s poverty, and gave him free lessons. Weiss helped Joplin to discover and appreciate music as an “art” and not simply as an entertainment, and helped his mother acquire a used piano for practice.
Before long, Joplin was on the road to a career in music, although in young adulthood he too was briefly a railroad labourer, while also teaching mandolin and guitar and travelling the American South as an itinerate musician.
The start of Joplin’s “big break” was his appearance at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, which helped to establish Ragtime as a national craze. The word stems from “ragged time”, which according to Jean Kleeb:
“…describes the joyful syncopated melodies in the right hand as they clash with the striking bass fundamentals on beats 1 and 3 in the left, together with agile chords on beats 2 and 4.”
Joplin was publishing Ragtime music by 1895, but it was 1899’s Maple Leaf Rag which proved to be his most influential and biggest hit, bringing national fame and providing him a steady ongoing income thereafter.
Subsequently, however, Joplin failed to replicate this stunning success, and often had financial difficulties as a result. During the course of his short career he composed just 53 piano pieces pieces, ten songs, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. The first of these, Guest of Honor, was confiscated by creditors and is now presumed lost, while the second, Treemonisha was a flop when partially staged in 1915.
Despite this apparent lack of success, Joplin’s impact was huge. As Rudi Blesh writes (Scott Joplin: Black-American Classicist):
“Scott Joplin was the central figure and prime creative spirit of ragtime, a composer from whom a large segment of twentieth-century American music derived its shape and spirit. Beyond America, the European music world felt the captivating force of ragtime’s rhythm and the lilt and charm of its melody. Brahms had envisioned a ragtime project just before his death; Debussy experimented in the medium with two piano pieces, Golliwogg’s Cakewalk and General Lavine; Stravinsky followed not too long after with his Piano Rag Music. Through it all, Scott joplin and his seminal creations remained in the background.”
After his move to New York in 1907 Joplin’s health steadily deteriorated due to syphilis, the onset of dementia, and he was eventually admitted to a mental institution in January 1917, dying there three months later at the age of 49. He was buried in a pauper’s grave which remained unmarked for 57 years.
More happily, however, his legacy as the “King of Ragtime” lived on through his music and that of the his students, which exerted a huge influence on the evolution of stride piano, jazz and swing.
Ready to Play Ragtime?
Having painted a picture of this extraordinary musician, let’s turn to his music and consider the Bärenreiter publication under review here.
Anyone with an enthusiasm for this music should try their hand at a half dozen of the pieces from the Joplin oeuvre, including of course The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, while certainly not neglecting the simply exquisite Solace (A Mexican Serenade).
Also an essential piece, Bethena: A Concert Waltz is surely among Joplin’s most lyrical melodies, and has a tragic backstory; the piece was Joplin’s first following the death of his second wife on September 10th 1904, just ten weeks after their marriage that summer.
This book contains all four of these essential classics, supplemented by other favourites, The Strenuous Life (A Ragtime Two-Step), Original Rags and Eugenia.
The selection of these seven pieces is, in short, totally superb, offering a perfect cross-section of Joplin’s piano writing that takes in the very best and most popular pieces.
The particular distinctive here, however, is that these are “easy arrangements”, and this obviously merits further investigation…
In his introduction, Kleeb summarises the modifications thus:
“Rapid octaves in the melody and bass have been omitted; difficult passages, chords and leaps in the left and right hands have been reduced and sometimes slightly altered, but without sacrificing the essence and spirit of the originals.”
In all cases, the full pieces are retained without any shortening, and in their original keys (so Maple Leaf Rag remains in the key of A flat, for example).
Essentially then these aren’t intermediate reductions or over-simplified to the point of losing their impact.
However, they are certainly more accessible to those players at early-advanced level (say, UK Grade 6), which is exactly the point at which many players are keen to try these works.
The Ready to Play series has a different look and feel to Bärenreiter’s familiar Urtext editions, with a glossy card cover image, standard book size, and off-white paper.
The book includes a short biography and picture of Jean Kleeb, a longer Preface introducing the music, and the notation itself.
Useful fingering suggestions are included throughout, and Bethena includes Joplin’s own pedalling indications (a quick comparison suggests minor adaptations were made here).
Any centenary provides a great opportunity to revaluate the work of a great musician, and there can be no doubt that Joplin was one of the most important figures of his time. As Kleeb reminds us, Joplin was,
“…the first African-American composer to blend classical and popular music, perfecting the art of ragtime. His works combine folk-tunes, African rhythms and classical piano music into a unique and distinctive whole, a true integration of White and Black America.”
Extraordinary though Joplin’s achievement was, we know little of his own piano playing skill, the reports of which are somewhat mixed. Many praised his playing, while some described it as mediocre and noted that he tended to compose on paper rather than at the piano. Joplin recorded seven piano rolls in 1916, but there is evidence these were widely edited to correct mistakes.
Whatever the truth, his music speaks to a virtuosic tendency. With rapid LH leaps, bravura octave passages and pulsating rhythms, Joplin’s piano rags are surely at least around Grade 8 level in their original form.
Those keen to explore the originals can obtain them in a single volume from Belwin Mills (strengths: you get the original typography, facsimiles of the first edition covers of each piece, and an excellent article by original Joplin biographer Rudi Blesh; weaknesses: it’s poorly bound and the pages will fall out after light use).
Many players will want to explore Joplin’s music sooner, and Jean Kleeb’s slightly simplified versions for early-advanced players are just the ticket. Indeed, I am delighted to have discovered this publication, and will start using it with my students right away!
These versions are also ideal for adult players with small hands (of whom there are many) who might struggle with the demands of the originals. It’s particularly good that although simplified, the pieces really retain the energy and musical scale of the unedited versions.
This is a fabulous publication which makes Joplin’s music more widely accessible than ever: there’s really nothing here not to like!
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