Scott Joplin. Tribute to American Composers


Scott Joplin was a composer, a pianist and a music teacher.

He was the second of six children born to Giles Joplin and Florence Givens. (Born around 1867–1868)

Joplin grew up in Texarkana, TX where he formed a vocal quartet, and taught mandolin and guitar. During the late 1880s he decided to travel around the American South as an itinerant Musician. He traveled along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis. He went to Chicago for the World’s Fair of 1893, which played a major part in making ragtime a national craze: By the early 1900’s Joplin became the creator of a “ragtime madness” that swept the world.

The syncopated melodies and richness of his lyrical ragtime tunes were so well respected technically that they influenced even classical composers such as Stravinsky and Debussy.

During his brief career, (he died at age 49), he wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas.


His most famous piece, “Maple Leaf Rag”, published in 1899, propelled Joplin to massive fame and reputedly sold over a million copies of sheet music, an unheard of feat!

Musical structure of Maple Leaf Rag:


Maple Leaf Rag” is a multi-strain ragtime march with athletic bass lines and offbeat melodies. Each of the four parts features a recurring theme and a striding bass line with copious seventh chords. The piece may be considered the ‘archetypal rag’ due to its influence on the genre; its structure was the basis for many other famous rags.

Maple Leaf Rag Seventh Chord Resolution:


A pervasive sense of lyricism infuses his work, and even at his most high-spirited, he cannot repress a hint of melancholy or adversity…He had little in common with the fast and flashy school of ragtime that grew up after him.” — Joshua Rifkin, a leading Joplin recording artist

Joplin and his fellow ragtime composers rejuvenated American popular music by creating exhilarating and liberating dance tunes, changing American musical taste.

Joplin’s music had helped to “revolutionize American music and culture” by removing Victorian restraint.”  — Biographer Susan Curtis

WATCH — From film: Scott Joplin. (Dueling piano competition)

After the publication of the Maple Leaf Rag, Joplin was soon being described as “King of ragtime writers.”

This new art form, the classic rag, combined Afro-American folk music’s syncopation and nineteenth-century European romanticism, with its harmonic schemes and its march-like tempos. In the words of one critic, “ragtime was basically… an Afro-American version of the polka, or its analog, the Sousa-style march. Joplin wrote his rags as “classical” music in miniature form in order to raise ragtime above its “cheap bordello” origins and produced work which opera historian Elise Kirk described as “…more tuneful, contrapuntal, infectious, and harmonically colorful than any others of his era.

In the hands of authentic practitioners like Joplin, ragtime was a disciplined form capable of astonishing variety and subtlety…Joplin did for the rag what Chopin did for the mazurka. His style ranged from tones of torment to stunning serenades that incorporated the bolero and the tango.”   ‑Joplin’s historian Bill Ryerson

By 1904, Joplin married Freddie Alexander of Little Rock, Arkansas, (his second marriage). To this young woman he had dedicated The Chrysanthemum. She died ten weeks after their wedding.

Joplin’s first work copyrighted after Freddie’s death, Bethena, was described by one biographer as “an enchantingly beautiful piece that is among the greatest of ragtime waltzes”.

This compositon was also used in the film: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Ragtime Dance (1906)

The Magnetic Rag (1914) (Listen to version by Perlman/Previn)

Scott Joplin wrote more than 40 piano rags, but he also wrote two operas; A Guest of Honor and Treemonisha. A Guest of Honor was performed in Joplin’s lifetime, but since then the music has been lost. Treemonisha was never performed while Joplin was alive, but it has been performed since then. Joplin also wrote a symphony, but the music has been lost.

READ: Scott Joplin Body of Work (List of compositions by Scott Joplin)

Listen to more “Rags”:  Elite Syncopations   Solace   Palm Leaf Rag   Sunflower Slow Drag   The Cascades

OPERA :    T R E E M O N I S H A

Treemonisha was set in the post-bellum period, after the war and emancipation. The freed men and women were poverty stricken and being taken advantage of by hucksters peddling goofer dust. Schooling was not available, and Treemonisha was the only educated member of the community. She challenged the hucksters and was chosen as the loader of the community, to help them progress.

Watch the finale with lyrics from Marching Onward:

VIDEOS: Treemonisha — Opera Recording:

The plot of Treemonisha is that education is the way forward, not the old superstitions.

The setting is after the Civil War.

The main point:

EDUCATION makes us strong!

Joplin self published Treemonisha in 1911, during the ragtime era.

They are not making light of it: when Scott Joplin wrote this in the early part of the 20th century he was trying to encourage his people to “march onward”. This is a very optimistic and uplifting story.





Scott Joplin — additional awards and recognition:

1970: Joplin was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame by the National Academy of Popular Music.

1976: Joplin was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his special contribution to American music.

1977: Motown Productions produced Scott Joplin, a biographical film starring Billy Dee Williams as Joplin, released by Universal Pictures.

1983: the United States Postal Service issued a stamp of the composer as part of its Black Heritage

Stamp by The U. S. Postal Service

commemorative series.

1989: Joplin received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

2002: a collection of Joplin’s own performances recorded on piano rolls in the 1900s was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. The board annually selects songs that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Those few who realized his greatness bowed their heads in sorrow. This was the passing of the king of all ragtime writers, the man who gave America a genuine native music.” jazz historian Floyd Levin


Scott Joplin (1867–1917)


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