Saturday, 11 April 2015

J is for Joplin

Anyone who has seen the 1973 movie The Sting will be familiar with the bouncy theme tune, "The Entertainer" composed by Scott Joplin.  Born in 1867 to an impoverished family in Texas, Scott Joplin showed an early talent in music and was encouraged to pursue it by his mother at the cost of her marriage: Joplin's father was adamant that music wouldn't lead to "practical income".  A sympathetic music professor tutored the boy free of charge and even helped the family acquire a piano.

By the age of 16, Joplin was performing in vocal groups around the area as well as giving guitar lessons. Although he worked briefly in railroad construction he chose to leave home and become a traveling musician.  Times were harsh, especially for a black performer.  In 1893 he performed at the Chicago Worlds Fair, and many historians credit this event with spreading the popularity of ragtime music, which Joplin was becoming adept in.

During 1894 he arrived in Missouri and performed both as a solo musician, and as a leader of his own band. He also began to publish his compositions and taught piano to a number of others who would later become musicians in their own right, including Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden.  Then in 1899 he signed a publishing contract to produce his first major work, The Maple Leaf Rag.  From then on Joplin was known as "the king of ragtime writers".

He moved his young family to St. Louis in 1900 and produced some of his best-known works, including The Entertainer, but his successful career took its toll on his personal life.  Joplin and his first wife divorced, and his second wife died of an illness.  Later he opened a company to showcase his first ragtime opera, but the theft of box office receipts caused it to fail.

Hoping for a fresh start, he moved to New York in 1907 and attempted to woo audiences there, but the big-city crowds were too accustomed to the lavish European stage productions of the time and didn't appreciate Joplin's simple staging style.  In 1915 he suffered a breakdown from overwork and the encroaching symptoms of syphilis.  Aware of his rapidly declining health, he continued to polish his operas and other compositions until he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital in 1917, where he died.

Despite the plethora and popularity of his work during his prime, Joplin's accomplishments were sadly unheralded until many years after his death.  Even his grave went unmarked until 1974.  However he and his ragtime contemporaries rejuvenated interest in American popular music, particularly tunes that had been composed by black musicians.  In 1970 Joplin was posthumously named to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in 1989.  Many of his piano rolls are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution.

Here's a recording of one of his most popular pieces, "The Entertainer".  It's a challenging piece to play but worth the effort.
The Entertainer (1902)

1 comment:

  1. How sad. Thank you for such a well written commentary on his remarkable life.