Maple Leaf Rag

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Surprisingly, after the productive year of 1909, 1910 saw only one rag issued. This is “Stoptime,” a reversion to the composer’s earlier, more extroverted work, with instructions for the pianist to stamp one foot at indicated places while his two hands are amply occupied with the score. In 1911 there is again only one rag, and from then on until Joplin’s death only three more, the last being the dark, serious “Magnetic Rag” of 1914. This dearth of rags can be traced to Joplin’s continued and now obsessive preoccupation with grand opera. From at least as early as 1909 he had been laboring on a major conception, the Afro-American opera Treemonisha . The full score in vocal-piano form, running to two hundred and seventy pages, was published by the composer at his own expense in 1911. While toiling on a full orchestration to replace the piano accompaniment he went to every available producer and potential backer to get the work staged. But even an expensive full-length audition performance conducted by the composer in 1915, with an invited audience, failed to attract an angel. Try as he would, he could not launch his magnum opus.

It is not surprising, in retrospect. The Joplin creation was, to both black and white audiences, a new thing under the sun: a black folk fable, a parable, in grand-opera form. Its subject was Joplin’s race and its quest for equality.

In its Ozark mountain setting Treemonisha is evocative of the composer’s own childhood and evocative, too, of his own mother in his choice of a woman to lead her race in seeking education and dispelling ignorance and superstition. So though a fable—filled with conjurors and mountain bears dancing in the forest—it is a seriously didactic work.

A foundling discovered beneath a tree (and named after it), Treemonisha is adopted and educated by the black couple who found her. Maturing, she is chosen to fight the conjurors and their superstitions and to lead her people to education, the indispensable prerequisite to equality and true freedom. So with its extraordinary combination of naivete with sophistication and of folk music and folk mores with operatic form, this musical work is unique amongjoplin’s compositions—indeed, with the exception of Lawrence Freeman’s Afro operas, unique in the operatic repertory.

But Freeman, the pupil of Dvorak, enjoyed Establishment support; Joplin, self-taught, did not; and he was twenty years too early for popular support. In 1911 the mass audience, already tiring of piano ragtime, was very much in the novelty “coon-song” groove of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Nearly two decades later the scene would at last be ready for a “black” opera, and George Gershwin would score with Porgy and Bess . But Joplin, who foresaw it all, was long dead.

He who had begun with triumph ended in defeat. In the six years from 1911 to 1917 Scott Joplin wore himself out in thwarted hopes for Treemonisha . What might—and should—have been his most productive years were spent in a passionate dedication to a grand opera truly based on the black experience, with folk ragtime and barbershop quartet and country music and dancing, the soaring litanies of the spirituals, the chants of the Ozark cabins and the cotton fields. It was his childhood and youth, distilled into a vision of the future of a race and a country. In 1972 the opera had a triumphant production in Atlanta, but this distant event offered no solace to Joplin in 1917.

Despair and the terminal effects of a disease contracted in his wandering youth combined to bring him down. Scott Joplin began visibly to go to pieces. In 1916, gravely deteriorated, he was committed by Lottie. The following April he died in the lonely night of madness. Until the very end, Lottie recalled, he had lucid moments when he scribbled music on any paper at hand.

Officially the great American composer died of the terrifying finale of syphilis, dementia paralytica. It hardly matters what youthful lapses in midwestern red-light districts brought him thus ignobly to this end. It is all one, anyway. The heart that stopped beating in 1917 was already broken.

But at last there began the essential rewriting of a history that long had neglected one of America’s greatest composers. Of a sudden Joplin rags were being played and heard once more. When “The Entertainer” came around again, more than seventy years after its first success, its music was as fresh and timely as if just composed.

 

The long neglect of the unmarked grave in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens was remedied, fittingly, by a society to which Joplin did not belong but of which he should have been a charter member. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers ( ASCAP ) placed and dedicated a bronze tablet on the bare pauper’s grave that Joplin shares with two strangers; his last years of fanatic dedication to his opera had left him bankrupt in purse as well as in mind.

The bronze tablet’s inscription has the unadorned brevity suitable only to the great. It reads