Friday, August 28, 2009

The (Restless) Entertainer: Scott Joplin's Treemonisha

I wish I were Alex Ross.  That way I could write about classical music with some semblance of knowledge and authority.  Unfortunately I am about as well versed on this topic as I am with Nascar (or any other organized sport.)  With the help of Mr. Ross and his wonderful book, The Rest is Noise, which details classical music trends throughout the 20th century, I have been able to guide my untrained ear to certain artists and pieces within the field that tickle my particular fancy, like the atonal work of Bela Bartok.  But beyond that I'm pretty hopeless.

Whilst conducting a little research into a planned biographical sketch of ragtime composer Scott Joplin to coincide with this week's screening of the Sting where his music plays an Oscar-winning part, I discovered that Joplin was not only the preeminent writer of rags but also a composer of operas.  Who knew? 

About that biographical sketch:

Born outside Texarkana in the late 1860's to a laundress and her railroad laborer husband, an ex-slave who soon ran off with another woman, Scott was an industrious, studious child.  To keep the young boy and his five siblings occupied during the hours she worked, their mother Florence encouraged the use of her employer's piano.  Scott took to the instrument quickly and with the help of a German music teacher, steeped himself in the artform.  In the 1890's he relocated to Missouri and began playing piano in black gentlemen clubs, one of which was called the Maple Leaf, the name of Joplin's first and biggest hit.   Despite writing the best works in the ragtime field, Joplin never attained stardom during his lifetime. He toiled away composing pieces until his death at the Manhattan State Hospital in 1917 from complications related to schizophrenia brought on by syphilis.

With the rise of jazz, ragtime's popularity quickly waned and Joplin struggled to remain artistically relevant.  He had already been experimenting for some time.  The same year that he composed his first ragtime hit, "Maple Leaf Rag", Joplin created "Ragtime Dance", a six-minute theatrical work.  Four years later he wrote his first opera A Guest of Honor, all traces of which are unfortunately lost.  In 1907, as a last ditch effort to achieve artistic acceptance, Joplin threw all of his energy into creating Treemonisha, a semi-autobiographical opera set in the South in the late 1800's.  It follows the titular character, an educated and independent woman, in her attempts to steer her small town away from superstition and toward rationalism and enlightenment.  Joplin languished over the work for years, lavishing it with hints of ragtime, spirituals and folk songs, which along with its libretto's rendering of uneducated, Southern dialects and its all-black cast, makes Treemonisha akin to George Gershwin's celebrated Porgy and Bess.

Unfortunately Treemonisha, with its intellectual feminist hero, its blend of European traditions and American popular song, and its occasionally impenetrable dialect, was far ahead of its time.  Unable to find financial backing to mount a production, Joplin invested his own money to perform the opera one night at a Harlem rehearsal space in a piano-and-vocal-only format.  The production was a terrible disaster with a threadbare set and unpolished performances.  Many of the audience walked out before the opera's conclusion.  Bankrupt and emotionally crushed, Joplin soon spiraled into the depression that resulted in his hospitalization.  Subsequently Treemonisha disappeared for fifty years until ragtime's unlikely resurgence (thanks in part to the Sting), when the opera was rediscovered and performed to rave reviews in Atlanta in 1972.  Later performances from around the world finally solidified the genius of Joplin's masterwork, which resulted in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, awarded in 1976.

And how do I, classical novice that I am, find the piece???  I really like it.  Opera's still somewhat a struggle for me, but I think that's why I gravitate to pieces like this that throw in familiar popular forms to give me some common ground.  It's fun to hear the familiar ragtime stylings as an undercurrent to the grand performance.  Plus it's got dancing bears!  

Coincidentally this post took me almost the exact length of the opera to compose.  I type this sentence as the last minute of Treemonisha's joyous closer, "A Real Slow Drag" plays out. 

Completely unrelated post-script: As I am editing and affixing photos I'm listening to Harold Budd and Brian Eno's Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror.  Has anyone else noticed how Radiohead completely ripped off "Not Yet Remembered" for "Videotape" on In Rainbows???

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