Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin was an American composer famous for his ragtime pieces, although his compositions also included a ballet and two operas.

Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin was born in Texas in 1867 or 1868, the second of six children of Giles Joplin and Florence Givens. His early musical education began at home, but he was first introduced to the piano at the age of seven in a house in Texarkana where his mother was employed as a cleaner. The young Joplin came to the attention of Julius Weiss, a local music teacher, who provided him with formal musical instruction including an introduction to opera.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Joplin played with several bands and was in Chicago for the World’s Fair in 1893 where he played cornet in a band outside the fair. He moved to Sedalia, Missouri after the fair and joined the Queen City Cornet Band for a year before forming and touring with a vocal group called the Texas Medley Quartette. It was while touring with this group that he published his first two pieces, the songs Please say you will and A picture of her face.

Returning to Sedalia, Joplin studied music at the George R Smith College and played at local clubs including the Maple Leaf and Black 400. His first piano rag, Original rags, was published in 1898 and in the following year he published the most famous of his rags, the Maple leaf rag. In November 1899, his only ballet was first performed at the Woods’ Opera House but it was not published until 1902 as The ragtime dance.

Joplin moved to St Louis in 1901 with his new wife Belle Jones and concentrated on teaching and composing. His compositions during his residence in the city included Elite syncopations, The entertainer and his first opera A guest of honor. Joplin formed an opera company and took the piece on tour in 1903 but the tour was cancelled when the company’s manager stole its funds. Left with bills that he could not pay, Joplin’s possessions, including the opera’s score, were confiscated. The opera has never resurfaced.

Joplin’s marriage to Belle, which produced a daughter who died after a few months, failed and in June 1904 he married Freddie Alexander in Little Rock, Arkansas. His second marriage lasted only three months as Freddie died in September. He moved back to St Louis and then on to Chicago where he collaborated with Louis Chauvin on a rag called Heliotrope bouquet.

In 1907, Joplin moved to New York where he published many new rags including Fig leaf rag and Pine apple rag. Joplin married for a third time in 1909 and formed a publishing company with his new wife Lottie Stokes. The company published his last rag, Magnetic rag, and two extracts from his second opera Treemonisha. Despite a great deal of effort, attempts to find backers for a performance of the opera failed and only sections were performed during Joplin’s lifetime. A complete performance of Treemonisha was not seen by the public until the early 1970s.

Joplin’s health declined during the last years of his life due to the effects of tertiary syphilis. In January 1917 he was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital where he died on 1 April. He was buried in Saint Michael’s Cemetery in a grave that was only marked in 1974. After his death, Joplin’s music remained popular and revivals in the 1940s and 1970s brought his work to new audiences. As well as the first performance of Treemonisha in the 1970s, Joplin’s music was used in the film The sting. In 1976, he was awarded a Pulitzer prize.

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