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Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Scott Joplin is generally considered to be the first black American composer of international importance. He was born in 1868 in Texas as the son of a former slave and a free-born black woman, and while the exact place of his birth is uncertain, he grew up in Texarkana, on the Texas-Arkansas border. He was taught music by a German immigrant musician names Julius Weiss. He later lived in Sedalia, Missouri, worked as a traveling musician, and partnered with the ragtime poineer Tom Turpin in St. Louis. He played lead cornet in several dance bands, and eventually formed his own dance band as well as a vocal group, the Texas Medley Quartett, with which he toured widely across the USA.

In Sedalia, he attended music classes, and taught piano and composition to some younger ragtime composers like Arthur Marshall and Scott Hayden, with whom he also collaborated in composing several ragtime pieces. He had the good business sense to secure a proper contract for his published music, which made him a steady income. His most successful work, the Maple Leaf Rag, sold half a million copies by 1909. Scott Joplin died of syphilis in 1917.

Joplin aimed to reconcile the traditional syncopated dance styles (the ragtime above all) with classical forms, and considered himself to be working in the classical western tradition. His rags were a huge influence on composers of the time like Debussy and Milhaud, and crucial for the development of several Jazz styles. Though his fame rests on his many infectious rags, Joplin's ambition was to write for the lyric theatre. After some unsuccessfull attempts he eventually finished his opera Treemonisha in 1910, but he did not succeed in finding a publisher so he published the score himself in 1911. Despite favourable reviews, a proper staging was not to happen during his lifetime, and the full merits of the opera were not recognized until the ragtime revival of the 1970, when it was lavishly staged and received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

Apart from Treemonisha, and the opera A Gueat of Honor (the score of which was lost), Joplin composed some songs and a large body of rags, marches, and dances with colorful names, some of these in collaboration with other ragtime composers. The most famous of all is Maple Leaf Rag (1899), other successful rags include The Easy Winners (1901) The Entertainer (1902), The Chrysanthemum (1904) and Piane Apple Rag (1908).


Recordings
Rags