The Ragtime Superstar

About The Ragtime Superstar

                                This post will examine the height of Scott Joplin’s career as the “king of ragtime”.

History of Ragtime

This musical genre originates from the emerging of syncopated piano improvisations published as “rags”, and they were made available to the public through inexpensive sheet music. Scott Joplin, whose first published rag appeared in 1899, was followed by James Scott and Joseph Lamb. They were often identifies as “the big three” of ragtime. 

Though it was very popular, African American composers were not pleased with the term “ragtime”. Joplin and other composers from the appropriation of the term by white Americans troubling. In Joplin’s “School of Ragtime” (1908), which is a collection of piano exercises for amateur piano players, he referred to the syncopated phenomenon as “what is scurrilously called ragtime”. With this quote, Joplin points out the offensive language that white American used towards his art choice. 

Joplin’s Rise to Fame

Scott Joplin published about fifty-three works, including his well-known compositions, “Maple Leaf Rag”, the opera “Treemonisha”, and “School for Ragtime”. Joplin’s publisher, John Stark, sold “Maple Leaf Rag” from one penny per copy. He ended up selling three thousand copies a month, which resulted in this work becoming the most popular and best-selling rag of all time. The successful:  “Maple Lead Rag” sold a half-million copies and by 1909-inspired other music publishers to produce hundreds of rags. 

Maple Leaf Rag

In “Maple Leaf Rag”, Joplin provides four sixteen-bar strains: AABBACCDD. It begins in the key of A-flat major, the C section, which is marked in the score as the “trio”, he modulates to the D-flat major then returned to the A-flat major in the fourth and final strain. Joplin’s melodies feature the most common syncopated rhythm of short-long-short long-long. He shows his fondness for harmonies, through the flat-sixth sonority prominently placed in the fifth measure of “Maple Leaf Rag”. His work balances idiomatic piano writing with virtuosic display that is suited to the developing capabilities of the piano at the time. 

“Maple Leaf Rag” and Classical Ragtime

Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” shares many essential musical characteristics of classical ragtime. 

  • Muli-theme music, usually grouped as ABACD or ABCD. Joplin’s theme was AABBACCDD
  • Recapitulation is mandatory. Once Joplin completed the D-flat major, he would return back to the A-flat major which begins the rag’s pattern.
  • The compositions had sixteen-measure segments, normally divided into four equal parts. “Maple Leaf Rag” is four sixteen bar strains. 
  • Ragtime composed mainly on a piano. Joplin composed “Maple Leaf Rag” completely on the piano.

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