When I was young, ragtime wasn’t a well-understood genre of music. The most familiar referent for it, Irving Berlin’s song Alexander’s Ragtime Band, bore it no relationship other than the title, and besides that ragtime was more or less synonymous with barrelhouse or boogie-woogie, all of them generic terms for fast, syncopated, rather showy, piano-based music. What changed all that was the movie The Sting, whose score was adapted from Scott Joplin rags. Suddenly Joplin was a household name, and his work began to appear on LP, both the kitschy version from the film and more authentic versions from musicians who knew and loved his work.
Joplin in many ways was like a classical composer. His rags were written, not improvised, and disseminated via sheet music, with fully worked-out piano arrangements. They also contained careful tempo markings, a common one being “Don t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast.” He even wrote a ballet and two operas, though none were successful. Most of the rest of his works were rags that use the same plan: Four 16-bar themes, each repeated, with the first restated after the second, thus AABBACCDD. As we’ll see, it’s impressive how many different things he could express within those limits.
My favorite versions of Joplin’s rags are the ones recorded by Joshua Rifkin, a classically trained musician also known for The Baroque Beatles Book, in which he wrote and recorded quite authentic-sounding baroque music using tunes from Beatles songs. Here’s a brief taste:
Rifkin takes a very classical approach to the music, playing the notes exactly as written without embellishment. All of the embedded links are to his work. Today’s first selection is the Maple Leaf Rag, Joplin’s first hit and still the most famous thing he ever wrote. It’s infectiously joyous from start to finish.
Next comes Gladiolous Rag, from a few years later. You might notice that it uses many of the same themes as the Maple Leaf does, but with deeper, more complex harmonies, and is far more emotional.
Last, Magnetic Rag, one of the final pieces Joplin completed before he died. This is a bit longer than the others, and uses a different plan: AABBCCDDAA. That is, it’s more like a classical rondo that returns to its starting point. It even ends with a short coda, as if Joplin knew this was the end and was saying goodbye.
All of the above can be found on these CDs: