Posthumous Fame Composer Scott Joplin

About the famous American composer Scott Joplin, biography and history of the man who achieved fame after only death.


SCOTT JOPLIN (1868-1917), U.S. composer

Precocious son of a former slave, Joplin taught himself to play the guitar, bugle, and piano before he was seven. In his native Texarkana, he received expert training in harmony, counterpoint, and classical music. Joplin left home at age 14, played honky-tonk piano in Texas and Louisiana, attended college in Sedalia, Mo., and worked in St. Louis and Chicago nightclubs. By the time he moved to New York he had begun to publish numerous ragtime compositions in sheet-music form. The syncopated "ragged time" had evolved from an improvised mating of black folk music with the European march. Played in Southern saloons and red-light districts, it was a grandparent of American jazz. Joplin treated the music as a serious art form, maintaining that "what is scurrilously called ragtime is an invention that is here to stay. . . . Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at `hateful ragtime' no longer passes for musical culture." He structured and formalized the pattern in his own compositions, best known of which was the 1899 Maple Leaf Rag. Joplin achieved recognition and a measure of prosperity within Harlem, but his name never traveled far beyond this cultural underground during his lifetime. In 1911 he completed his ragtime opera Treemonisha, exhausting his physical and emotional resources in staging a single Harlem performance in 1915. Interest in ragtime music faded with the new rhythms of Tin Pan Alley, and Joplin, sick and disillusioned at 48, died in Manhattan State Hospital. The Joplin revival started in 1970, when Nonesuch Records issued a Joplin series played by classical pianists. Republication of his rags soon followed, and the 1973 film The Sting made Joplin's The Entertainer rag a national hit. Joplin's grave finally received a permanent marker; and Treemonisha, with elaborate orchestration, arrived on Broadway in 1975.

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