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A remarkable study of Joplin's life and music

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era - Edward A. Berlin

Among composers, few have dominated a genre of music as completely as Scott Joplin did ragtime. His dozens of compositions, ranging from "Maple Leaf Rag" to "The Entertainer," became the music of their era and contributed to the development of jazz. Nor did Joplin limit himself to composing instrumental tunes, as his ambitions to be regarded as a composer of classical music led him to write a ballet and two operas as well. Yet for all of his success and the enduring influence of his music, Joplin died in poverty, virtually ignored by his contemporaries.

 

Many of the details of Joplin's life are unfortunately lost to us, and what remains is often confused or contradictory. Writing Joplin's biography is practically a tale in itself, and one that Ed Berlin describes at the start of this book. Originally written a quarter-century ago, it reflected years of research, yet even then provided at best a hazy understanding of many parts of Joplin's life and career. When undertaking a revised edition, Berlin was able to utilize the Internet to access a far wider range of sources than had previously possible, particularly newspaper articles and notices of Joplin's early career as a performer. With them he was able to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of Joplin, resulting in the best biography yet of the composer.

 

Yet in spite of Berlin's efforts, some of the most basic information remains elusive. Even the date of Joplin's birth remains unknown, with Berlin having to rely upon deduction to approximate it around 1867 or 1868. The reflected the impoverished circumstances of Joplin's family, yet Joplin's family worked to overcome this poverty to give young Scott a musical education. Berlin credits Julius Weiss, a German immigrant who served as Joplin's music teacher, as key in providing Joplin with his education in music as well as his aspirations for acceptance within the classical tradition.

 

After a period spent as a performer traveling with various groups Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri. By describing in detail the community in which Joplin lived Berlin is able to infer some of the particulars of Joplin's life during this period, one in which Joplin began publishing compositions with John Stark, who became an important figure in Joplin's life. Yet the growing success Joplin enjoyed with "Maple Leaf Rag" and other compositions was tempered with tragedy in his personal life and setbacks in his career. Joplin's first marriage soon ended after the death of their infant daughter and his second wife died just ten weeks after their wedding, while his first opera, A Guest of Honor, was lost when the theatrical boarding house seized the materials for it for nonpayment of bills. Though Joplin remarried after his move to New York in 1907 and wrote a second opera, Treemonisha, his physical and mental health soon declined as a result of syphilis, resulting in his death in 1917.

 

Berlin's book is a remarkable study of Joplin's life and music. While much remains unknown (and with some of the details disputed by other authors) Berlin's assiduous detective work is nothing short of impressive, while his analysis of Joplin's compositions — illustrated with musical notations within the text — provides readers with a deeper appreciation of his music. While much about Joplin may remain frustratingly unknown, Berlin provides us with the best understanding yet of the times in which Joplin lived and his legacy as an artist. It should be read by anyone interested in the man or his music.