Best known for his significant contributions to a new musical style that blended African-American musical styles with European forms and melodies, the "King of Ragtime" helped to "revolutionize American music and culture by removing Victorian restraint." (Biographer Susan Curtis)
Scott Joplin was born in November, 1868, to a laborer and a former slave. At age 7,
he taught himself music on a piano in a home where his mother worked in the town of Texarkana. His gift was noticed by the German-born, classically trained music teacher Julius Weiss, who opened the door to a world of learning and music of which the then 11-year old Joplin was largely unaware.
This influence, along with the musical atmosphere present around Texarkana including work songs, gospel hymns, spirituals and dance music, contributed to Scott’s natural ability.
As a teenager he worked professionally in dance halls, brothels and as a traveling musician. The first traceable evidence of his music career places him in a minstrel troupe. When he was in his late twenties, his original songs so impressed a group of businessmen that they arranged for Joplin’s first publications. Around the same time he enrolled in the George R. Smith College for Negroes to study formally.
When he published Maple Leaf Rag in 1899 it transported him to the national stage. So famous, he had several students including ragtime composers Arthur Marshall, Louis Chauvin, and Scott Hayden.
Yet despite fame and fortune, there was much sadness in his life. Joshua Rifkin, a leading Joplin recording artist, wrote "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.”
His first and only child with his wife Belle Hayden died within months after birth; they divorced soon afterwards. His second wife, Freddie Alexander, died weeks after their wedding. In 1911, married Lottie stokes, with whom he co-founded a publishing company and who managed his career during his declining mental and physical health. He died, destitute, in 1917.
Joplin’s interest extended beyond the rag music that had made him so famous. He wrote a ballet and two operas. Although none of these ventures provided him the fame and accolades of his piano work, they were deeply important to him.
A Guest of Honor, 1901, his first opera, was performed on tour but foundered and had to be shut down. It is considered lost.
Treemonisha, a groundbreaking work, combines the conventions of opera with traditional African-American folk tales and gospel. He worked on it from 1911 until his death. Not being able to get funding, the composer self-financed its only production, a scaled down reading, which he accompanied as pianist. It was panned and led to his financial ruin.
During the ragtime revival of the 1970’s, Scott Joplin finally found recognition for the full range of his life’s work. Treemonisha was staged by the Houston Grand Opera. (Currently, a new collaboration is working to re-stage the opera). An album of his rags was recorded by Joshua Rifkin, selling millions of copies. The Academy Award winning movie The Sting featured his composition, The Entertainer. In 1976, he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
The Dranoff 2 Piano Foundation