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Maple Leaf Rag
“It is needless,” wrote his publisher, “to say anything of the writer of ‘Maple Leaf,’ ‘Cascades,’ ‘Sunflower’ or ‘Entertainer.’ You know him.” But this black genius died penniless and all but forgotten
June 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 4
The year 1900 found Joplin respectably ensconced in his own home and studio in St. Louis, turning out what for him, with his slow, careful craftsmanship, was a spate of published rags, throughout which, from rag to rag, can be traced the steady development of a profoundly original composer. There are a full twenty from his own hand, from “Peacherine” and “The Easy Winners” in 1901 on to “Searchlight” in 1907. Midway, in 1904, comes one of the most lyrical of all Joplin rags, “The Cascades,” which was a free musical description of the St. Louis World Fair’s grandiose central watercourse. In this same period came several songs, the beautiful concert waltz “Bethena,” and a total of five rag collaborations with other composers. Nor does this list complete that fruitful period; add several more beautiful waltzes, some spirited marches, a long composition, The Ragtime Dance , and ragtime’s number one mystery, A Guest of Honor .
In the 1940’s the ragtime scholar Roy Carew, searching through the musical copyright files in Washington, made an intriguing discovery. He found a card, dated February 18, 1903, bearing the title A GUEST OF HONOR A Ragtime Opera by SCOTT JOPLIN
In addition it stated “Published by John Stark & Son, copyright 1903 by Scott Joplin.” Here was an unheard-of Joplin item and one, despite the card, apparently never published. A handwritten notation on the card states “Copies never received.”
This set off a wide and intense search by ragtime lovers that still continues. It has not produced a single visible copy either in holograph or in print. There is one unverified account of its being found in the basement of an old music store in Missouri, but its alleged discoverer has never shown it or allowed it to be performed. The Stark descendants have recalled that Guest of Honor was a family topic for years, a project planned, postponed, and planned again but never accomplished. Apparently all hinged on the writing of a stronger libretto.
The moot subject that eventually estranged Joplin and Stark was an extended pro and con discussion concerning the publication of another long work, a folk ballet, with solo narrator, called The Ragtime Dance . Joplin himself financed a single public performance at Woods Opera House in Sedalia, and after heavy pressure from the composer Stark, against his will and his business judgment, published the full score, nine pages of music requiring more than twenty minutes to perform. Publication came in 1902. It had taken three years to move Stark, and his pessimism was justified; sales were virtually nil. But the predictable argument—expanding genius versus skeptical businessman—created a partial break between the two men. Joplin ceased publishing exclusively with Stark. Nevertheless four years later Stark recouped his losses by issuing a short, rag-length piano version of Ragtime Dance prepared by Joplin.
But despite the fate of Guest of Honor and The Ragtime Dance nothing dampened Joplin’s desire and determination to move, whenever possible, into the longer Afro-American forms he envisioned.
The year 1907 was a crucial one, in both his creative and his personal life, a year when he suddenly went back to wandering as he had in his youth. Besides thwarted professional ambitions there had been severe disappointments in his personal life. Just before leaving Sedalia to move to St. Louis, Joplin had married, taking as his bride Belle Hayden, a widow and Scott Hayden’s sister-in-law. The marriage was both tragedy and fiasco. Tragedy came with the death of a baby girl who, ill from birth, lived only a few months. The union was a fiasco because, as Arthur Marshall later recalled, Joplin’s wife “had no interest in his music career.” The husband strove bravely to make the marriage succeed, even (as Marshall recalled) tried to give his wife violin lessons, a pathetic harking back to his mother and father and a home full of music. Even when separation loomed as inevitable, he asked for help from his young protégés: “As my brother, Lee Marshall, Hayden and I were like his brothers, Joplin often asked us to console Mrs. Joplin—perhaps she would reconsider … but a separation finally resulted.”
Then to sadness and frustration was added guilt, however undeserved, for only two years after the death of the baby Belle herself died. And so Scott Joplin’s Wanderjahr began.