Readers of this
website may well remember the effect that the rediscovery of
Scott Joplin created in the early 1970s as a result of that
wonderful film ‘The Sting’, especially with ‘The Entertainer’.
It precipitated a series of new publications and of his complete
works. The first pianist of note to tackle the music was Joshua
Rifkin whose Nonesuch recordings dating from 1971 to 1974 are
I remember, as a
boy growing up in a small Staffordshire town, that the ‘rag
and bone man’ would come around every week with his horse and
cart. We would, amongst other things, give him a number of dirty
old rags. These he took to be turned into a poor quality paper;
this was the continuation of a tradition. It was on this sort
of paper that, many years before, Joplin’s rags had first been
published between 1890 and 1910. They may have been inexpensive
to buy but because of the nature of the reclaimed paper very
few of the originals have survived. The logic ran: use the cheapest
paper for the lowest quality music; music which was not only
popular and therefore nasty but written by a black man. This
is the kind of prejudice which Joplin and other ragtime composers
had to contend with. Ultimately it led to his total breakdown
and disheartenment. His death followed after the disappointing
reception of his ragtime opera, complete in 1915, ‘Treemonisha’.
Ragtime is essentially
a mixture of African rhythms derived from the black slave community
and the popular music of Louis Gottschalk and Stephen Foster
.By the 1920s it had developed into jazz and later to rock and
roll and to pop music as we have come to know it.
Naxos is embarking
upon a complete Joplin series in their ‘American Classics’ series.
Volume 1, which for some reason passed me by, was given to Alexander
Peskanov. Now they have turned to the American pianist and composer
Benjamin Loeb. It’s also possible to hear Joplin play these
pieces on piano rolls. Rifkin is often a great deal faster than
Loeb, whereas Joplin sets a quite relaxed tempo, especially
in the marches.
Let me pick out
a few highlights from these sixteen tracks. I’m thinking especially
of the extraordinary, almost Ivesian ‘The Crush Collision
March’, the earliest piece here, dated 1896. With its cluster
chords, dissonances and frantic harmonies it represents a train
crash and is full of whistles and screams.
One does not immediately
associate Joplin with marches but there are three recorded here.
These include the Rosebud March, which apart from the
fact that it is in duple time (6/8 actually) bears very little
relation to the march as we know it! There is also a rag type
Intermezzo, which with its curling, quite well-known
tune, is less syncopated and excitable than other rags. The
structure is typical of all of the music on this CD: a sort
of necklace-form where one tune leads into another without any
further reference to earlier music. Each set of 16 bars or whatever,
is repeated so it fall into the pattern AABBCC, for instance.
It is not often
that a pianist is asked to stamp his foot whilst playing but
this is what happens in The Stoptime Rag. The foot keeps
the basic beat while the hands play some snazzy rhythms around
its basic pulse. Good fun.
ragtime as simply a syncopated melody. On listening to the beautifully
named ‘Swipesey’ Cake Walk I wonder if he had heard it.
The simple syncopations and tune remind me of ‘Golliwog’s
Cake Walk’, or perhaps I’m imagining it. David Truslove,
in his excellent notes, says about the piece that it was a collaboration
“written jointly by a black colleague Arthur Marshall and completed
by Joplin”. He remarks on its “zestful melodic lines”.
he is American (born in Texas), it appears to me that Benjamin
Loeb is an ideal exponent of this music. He seems to be authentic
and has a slightly brittle tone, aided no doubt by the wonderfully
clear, if sometimes dryish acoustic of the excellently named
‘Country Day School’. His rhythms are incisive and he has a
knack of elegantly bringing out a melody against a firm left-hand
All in all, a highly
recommendable disc. It will be most interesting to see which
pianists are entrusted to follow up in this fascinating project.
See also Review
by Dan Morgan