Scott Joplin, the undeniable master of the Rag, died in a state of financial decline, the victim of racial discrimination. Or, was his grand masterpiece, the classical opera on which he based his personal esteem and defined his success, a mediocre testament to a man that had overreached his talent, invested in the emotion of the project without objective evaluation of its musical value.
Anticipated as the American opera of the 20th century, it was eventually ignored by the classical establishment that had so eagerly awaited its completion. Why, at its completion, was this work so utterly ignored? Could it be that despite the popularity of the individual, the undeniable talent of the ragtime composer, and the very best hopes, the musical establishment couldn't bear the disappointment of a work of such utter mediocrity?
An American classical tradition had yet to emerge with enough credibility to compete with the music scene in Europe. A comprehensive listing of American classical composers born before 1890 will not reveal more than four or five names we might even recognize, much less names that swayed the course of musical history. A truly 'American' operatic statement would have to compete for recognition with the finest masters of all time.
Let's size up the competition. Joplin, born in 1868, would have been roughly contemporary with Mahler, Debussy, Richard Strauss, Elgar, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Holst, to name a few. Brahms, Saint-Saens, Rimsky-Korsakov and Wagner were all at the peak of their careers around the time Scott was born. This is awesome company for even the greatest of creative genius, much less a ragtime composer from Texarcana, Texas.
The world was plunging into the philosophical abyss immediately preceding WW1. Stravinsky's ballet Rite of Spring was causing riots in concert halls. Alban Berg's tale of madness and murder in Wozzeck stirs emotions and controversy world wide. Tonality has been obliterated, the world of classical music is about to explode in utter chaos. Enter Treemonisha - a little girl with a bag of luck, ring-dancing with the corn huskers, saved from the wasp nest by Remus. Men in the cotton field sing "we will rest a while, 'Cause it makes us feel very good. Soon we'll be at home chopping wood. We will rest a while 'Cause it's almost eatin' time. We will rest awhile, 'Cause restin' is very fine.' Aunt Dinah has blowed de horn, and the whole thing wraps up with A Real Slow Drag.
Failing the test of successful classical opera, we look to musical farce and comedy - Gilbert and Sullivan, et al. Here we witness sophisticated plots, flashy orchestration, lavish sets. Again, a standard far and away superior to the meager resources of Joplin's children plotting to push Treemonisha onto the wasp's nest, or the Frolic of the Bears.
Stylistically, the music is a clinic in common practice tonality. Gone is the rollicking good humor of his rags. A new conservative sensibility permeates the music. Hymn-like barbershop quartets are interspersed with recitative conversations. Syncopation, while still present, assumes a secondary role. The music is affected and serious. This is music that is keenly conscious of itself. In attempting to make his mark on music history, Joplin abandons the very spirit for which he is still remembered. He is blinded by his sentimental attachment to his rustic childhood.
What results is a folk opera of historical significance, a romantic picture of life as seen through the eyes of a turn of the century black American. Unfortunately, this is a work that falls far short of the expectations of the classical establishment. To their credit, there appears not to be a rude dismissal of Joplin as a person. In fact, for nearly 60 years, music historians grappled with this work, positioned and repositioned it, analyzed and honored it until its eventual premiere in the 1970's. We're still talking about it today. Will it ever be a classic, performed the world over for a hundred years in the future? I doubt it. Interesting? Absolutely. It will always rank high in the annals of musical Americana.
Scott Joplin was an enormously talented and successful American composer and musician. We want Joplin to succeed. We like him. But, even Beethoven had his clinkers. We just don't play them.