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:

[amazon template=image&asin=B000005IYF]

[amazon template=image&chan=ot main&asin=B001QITOQG]

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Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever. ...more →

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15 thoughts on “Heavenly!

  1. I consider ragtime to be classical music, in the sense that I am not surprised when I hear it on a classical station. This doesn’t mean it was classical when it was written. “Classical” is a moving target. In related news, negro spirituals, when sung by opera performers. See also John Philip Sousa. In none of these cases is this meant to suggest that the “classical” category is exclusive. I am perfectly happy with multiple categories.

    The Baroque Beatles: meh. It is easy for someone with the right training to produce a pastiche of mediocre baroque music. Actual baroque composers vomited forth vast quantities of the stuff, most of it quite forgettable. Inserting pop tunes into a pastiche is mildly amusing, but only briefly. In related news, I was quite enchanted with Switched On Bach in my youth. It was re-released some years ago, probably hitting some round-number anniversary, so I heard it again for the first time in decades. I was struck by how poor the performance was. Bach can withstand a lot of abuse, but this simply was Not Good.

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  2. This reminded me of an album I bought several years ago that I really enjoyed: Elena Kats-Chernin’s Ragtime and Blue. I stumbled across it when the San Francisco Ballet did a program choreographed to some of the music. Kind of obscure, but it’s what you get when a contemporary composer trained in the Soviet Union plays around with th ragtime style. Hard to find real recordings to link to:

    Alexander Rag

    Suburban Rag

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  3. What a wonderful post. So much here, and so much still left to discuss. I appreciate you leaving so much spare on a topic like Joplin. Many interesting choices, many more interesting choices…

    Thank you for the Beatles connection (I’ll get there in a minute…).

    Yes, of course Maple Leaf. Yes. I became particular to the Labeque sisters rendition, which I can’t find (easily) freely available online. So, maybe their version of The Entertainer (something which must be included in a discussion of Joplin) will be representative enough: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsy3NZ8Nfes. (Wait for it…)

    Also, let’s include a Scott Joplin recording of Maple Leaf Rag, for comparative purposes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMAtL7n_-rc.

    Pineapple Rag always had an appeal for me. More playful, explorative. Maybe that’s just me… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-PtpGBmr5E

    One from The Sting that I’ve always liked the version (Solace): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOwachalNNw

    Ok, Beatles…

    Your thing reminded me of The Kings Singers – the older group (not sure how many groups of them there have been). I made a copy (so sue me) of a record that I checked out from the library back in the day (on casette) of the 10th anniversary gala or something (they only had one record of the two record set…). And one of the songs was this (o-bla-di obladah, you know the one…): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-m1riZN434

    I can’t find “When Pa was courtin’ Ma” that they also did on that record, they have lots of great stuff, I think. They even did a Beatles album, if I remember right, Madrigal History Tour, right?

    Next, we’ll be talking about John Cage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gN2zcLBr_VM

    Better to introduce PDQ Bach before Cage, I think…

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