When mentioning Joplin's date of birth, the adverb "about" is necessary. It should be 1868, but one can not exclude with certainty that it was not the previous year. The place is less uncertain: a small village on the border between Texas and Arkansas, along the line that only three years before had divided the Northern industrial states, from the Southern secessionist states, where the social and economical systems were based upon slavery. The closest city to Joplin's home was Texarkana, distant 50 miles. Scott's parents moved there shortly after his birth. Scott had the advantage of being born in a poor but musical family. A German teacher Julius Weis gave him the first notions of harmony, and educated him in all the forms of classical music, including melodrama. Years went by quickly. Scott's travels took him further and further away, and finally decided to leave Texarkana. He was attracted by the atmosphere in Saint-Louis.
After having spent three years in and out of Saint-Louis, Scott made his decisive trip to Chicago where America was celebrating the 400 years of its discovery, with the World's Columbian Exposition. In Chicago, Scott had his first real contact with ragtime. There he was able to listen to outstanding artists such as Plunk Henry, Johnny Seymour, and Otis Saunders. Within a brief period of time, ragtime became a real form of entertainment, and Joplin was now performing in a famous club in Sedalia, the "Maple Leaf Club". A younger city than S. Louis, but equally lively. In Sedalia Joplin found the right atmosphere to continue his musical evolution, and spent a lot of his time studying composition.
In those years, Ragtime progressively emerged from its prehistory, and began its history, that was to last for over twenty years. Chronologically, Joplin came after William Krell and Tom Turpin, and played his first rag, Original Rags, in 1897, a year before Maple Leaf Rag. Original Rags is nevertheless part of the "Classic Ragtime Compilation" that the editor Offman, brought out two years later.
This same tune was turned down by John Stark, the man who was to become Joplin's chief editor. Stark was a typical member of the dynamic society of Sedalia. White, but brought up on an Indian farm, Stark was incapable of any form of racial prejudice. When he met Joplin, Stark was almost sixty. His indifference to Original Ragsdid not seem to matter, since he signed a contract with Joplin as soon as he heard Maple Leaf Rag. In Sedalia Joplin made many friends, worked, and found opportunities to study. He also found love. He met Belle shortly after her husband's death. They got married at the end of 1901. Those were happy times for them. Unfortunately, Joplin relationship to Belle did not maintain its original intensity, it was more physical attraction than true love. Belle would have liked Scott to spend more time with her, and less on his music, friends, and pupils.
One of their many arguments was triggered off by Alfred Ernest's visit to Sedalia. He was a German musician, who had a contract with the biggest coral and symphonic institution in Saint Louis. Eleanor Stark, the editor's daughter, introduced him to Joplin. Ernest declared Joplin to be a musical genius, and said he would become even better if he came to study with him in Saint -Louis. Belle was expecting a child, and strongly opposed the plan, but was forced to give in. When the little girl was born, she only lived for a few months, and the couple decided to separate. Belle moved to Chicago, and the two never met again.
Though he treated them as classical compositions, the ragtimes no longer satisfied Joplin's aspirations. After having made good progress with Ernest, he considered himself ready to try Opera music, which he had always been interested in. At the beginning of 1903, he began working on A Guest of Honor. Within a few months, he had formed a troupe of thirty-two people. The rehearsals were held at the Crawford theatre in Saint-Louis. The opening night was not as triumphant as he had hoped, but was nevertheless encouraging. A few days later the troupe started on tour. Unfortunately, the trip ended, on the first date: the money had been stolen after the first show. The hotel bill could not be paid, and costumes, suitcases and partitions were confiscated. But we will never know how the opera was phrased, since the original manuscripts were lost on the eventful first night in Pittsburgh. Joplin's resentment towards the editor was inevitable; he had refused to publish the opera before the tour.
The forced interruption of the tour allowed Scott to relax in Chicago with nothing particular to do. He took a trip to Texarkana to visit his family. While travelling through Little Rock he was introduced to Freddie Alexander, and Scott fell in love with her at first sight. The Chrysanthemum, one of his most beautiful compositions, was written for her. The sweetness of the tune, and the rhythmical pace are kept in perfect symbiosis. In this new state of happiness, Scott contacted Stark again, and their relationship took off again on a better foot. Stark edited the piece within record time.
In spring 1904, Scott was married in Saint-Louis, in time for the opening of the Olympic Games. Joplin wrote Cascades for the inauguration of the fountain, the official symbol of the Games. Joplin, however, had little time to have a taste of his glory, he was in a hurry to get back to Little Rock where he had left Freddie. Shortly after the wedding, the two took the train to Sedalia, but stopped off at most of the stations, because Scott had concerts booked in most of the towns on the way. It took them a month to reach Sedalia, and on their arrival, Freddie was running a high fever. A bad flu rapidly became pneumonia and she died within a few weeks, on the 20th of September 1904. After the funeral, Scott left Sedalia for good.
His career came to a halt, and poverty was looming ahead. He stayed in various places, and played in third class clubs. Occasionally some event came about to comfort him, and restore his hopes and finances. At this point, Joplin's difficulties to get Treemonisha published and performed began. In 1907, the opera was almost ready. Joplin lived mainly in Chicago, but took occasional trips. One of these brought him to Washington D. C., where he met the 30-year-old Lottie Stokes, an intelligent woman and a lover of music. She stood by him for the remaining ten years of his life, and gave him the support and affection that he needed. The couple moved to New York.
The following year, 1908 was also a years of great musical inspiration for Joplin. This is quite strange, if one considers that at the time he was beginning to suffer from the first symptoms of syphilis, and was also slipping into a rather dangerous monomania. Syphilis was to bring him to his grave within ten years time. The monomania had to do with the many difficulties and misunderstandings hindering the production of his opera Treemonisha.
It was about at that time that Scott's life started sliding down hill; he obsessively sought for editors, impresarios, and theatres. He was not content to be considered the most refined of the Rag composers; he wanted to be known as an author of operatic music. Syphilis, incurable at the time, was also causing Joplin mental deficiencies. The musical difficulties were presumably linked to racial prejudice. The editors didn't want to risk anything on a score that would never be performed. No theatre would have performed the work of a Negro. Laid-out in 3 acts in compliance with the canonical forms of melodrama (overture, aria, ariosi, recitativi, chorus, and ballet), the opera was presented in a piano and vocal edition, edited and financed by Joplin himself. There is no trace of the orchestral score, which was written, but remained unpublished.
It is a terrible pity that we shall never know how Joplin dealt with such a large symphonic and operatic work. None of Joplin's contemporaries realised the great potential of the masterpiece. The effort to get Treemonisha published took all of Joplin's energy. He hardly wrote anymore: one piece a year. In 1912, Stern, the editor, published Scott Joplin's New Rag and Magnetic Rag came out in 1914 with the small editing company that Scott had opened with Lottie a year earlier. Syphilis was taking its toll, and in 1916, reached its final stages, with devastating consequences to Scott's mental health. In January 1917, Lottie was obliged to take him to hospital, and then to the lunatic asylum, were he died on the first of April of that same year.
Virgilio Celletti © 2002 KHA Records