Saturday, April 01, 2017

John McWhorter on the failure of Scott Joplin's music to have more than a marginal place in the American musical canon

A couple of years back John McWhorter wrote the following in a review of a biography about Scott Joplin:


In the end, the reason Joplin’s music burned brightly only for a spell forty years ago is the same reason Joplin never found true success in his lifetime. Certainly, his being black in an America most of whose citizens saw black people as barely human didn’t help. Yet a white Scott Joplin would have had little more success. Almost obsessed with fashioning ragtime as high art, Joplin was bested by two obstacles. First, high art is always a limited taste; second, even at its finest ragtime is an art of limited parameters, the musical equivalent of the miniature and the madeleine, incompatible with larger scale.

This is a shame but Joplin had set on developing his sound toward what was arguably one of the most prestigious musical idiom of the 19th century, opera.

I can grant, somewhat, that high art is always a limited taste.  I have to dissent on the proposal that even at its finest ragtime is an art of limited parameters that is incompatible with larger scale.  There are two reasons for this dissent, the first is that ragtime may be incompatible with larger scale forms as we observe them in 19th century art music but this does not mean ragtime is incompatible with larger scale forms if we go back to a more 18th century approach to musical forms. 

Unfortunately for Joplin his attempt at opera was less than stellar and opera itself was beginning to wane as the "in" high art happening.  Joplin's death was during the period in which Stravinsky's star rose with his scores for ballets.  I can't really disagree with McWhorter about the limitations of Joplin's idiom being applied to opera.  But while I grant that ragtime seems unsuited to opera I would propose that a century after Joplin died there are untapped possibilities of synthesizing the beauty of Joplin's recognizable sound into larger scale forms.  I think a case can be made that ragtime is a style that can be developed into a vocabulary that can work in sonata forms.  On the centennial anniversary of Joplin's death I think we're overdue to reassess just how unsuitable the style lf ragtime is as material that is thought incompatible with larger scale musical works. 

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