In my late teens and early twenties I got into ragtime. While my study of the style was not necessarily deep it was enthusiastic; although I’m a guitarist I studied and practice just enough piano to learn how to play “Maple Leaf Rag” while I was also picking up a few Bach pieces and teaching myself how to play excerpts from Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis. During those years I made several attempts to compose rags of my own. At length I settled into my primary love, composing for the guitar and for a long time set ragtime aside.
What I never set aside, however, was the conviction that ragtime and sonata forms ought to be perfectly suited to each other. Although I was not always very sure how, I took it as given that, in principle, the style of ragtime and various sonata forms could ultimately be synthesized. To paraphrase Iannis Xenakis, the most ambitious forms of interstellar travel that technology may provide for us may not carry us so far as liberation from our mental shackles could. If I never accepted the shackles of assumptions that ragtime and sonata forms could not mix I would have a lifetime to find out how they could mix.
One of the gentle warnings Leonard B. Meyer had about musical analysis is that we not forget the distinction between musical analysis as a matter of form and musical analysis as an observation of process. That these two aspects of musical analysis often overlap does not mean we won't run into trouble if we misdiagnose early on which of these two aspects of analysis will be most relevant to whatever we study. The kind of modular architectonics that are useful for delineating themes and transitions in a sonata form may be useless in evaluating the contrapuntal processes guiding a fugue, and might even lead us astray. While linear expansion and development in a fugue "might" give us insights applicable to a sonata form the expectation of a continuously developing thematic economy may run aground in explicitly dance-derived forms, so the way we'd analyze a Bach fugue will be of little help in assessing a rag by Joseph Lamb.
That said, being thoroughly steeped in both the history and literature of the sonata, as well as the history of ragtime can open up possibilities for the fusion of both idioms that may remain, as yet, under-explored.
Of course to explore those possibilities we need to establish basic observations that may be made about these idioms. Rather than attempt to discuss ragtime in terms more suitable for the unfamiliar, I'm simply going to briefly go over the basic outline of the "Joplin" rag as it's commonly described.
AA BB A CC DD
Give or take an introduction, any transitions, and a coda, that's the basic formal outline of a rag.
We know that not every theme will be repeated and there are cases in which a theme that appears earlier may appear again in a modified form. For instance, the B strain in James Scott's Modesty Rag is recapitulated at the end where the "D" strain would be and it's slightly recomposed. This example alone should satisfy for the sake of this essay that recapitulating the B group as the final strain in a rag already opens up possibilities for a sonata form cast in a ragtime style.
For that matter, where the return of the A strain would typically be could very easily be replaced with what in more traditional understandings of sonata form would be the development section. The syntactic climax of the return of the A material in a ragtime may be spatially displaced to a point later in a ragtime than we might expect it to conventionally appear but the syntactic climax of the reprise would still take place. If we bear in mind a simple proposal, that the A or B sections do not have to refer to explicit, literal repeats but may stand as a cumulative time-space, then what we'd call the BB section or B section of a ragtime can be the space in which the second (or also third) thematic strains can be introduced with some suitable transitional materials.
This would be a way of synthesizing ragtime and sonata form in cases where we have sixteen-measure ragtime strains. Of course this would not be the only way a sonata form in a ragtime style could be composed. In fact if we were to make use of material more characteristic of early (rather than late) 19th century sonata materials we might find themes are more apt to be as short as eight measures. If our thematic strains are 12 measures or less then immediate and literal repetition might be ill-advised; it might also be less effective, given the fact that so very often thematic differentiation is a weakness in ragtime compared to other styles.
Any structural repetitions we might plan to introduce that could bridge the conceptual space between a rag and a sonata form would have to lean more toward a conventional understanding of a sonata form than a rag. Ragtime repetitions are so conventional as to overpower the often ignored conventions of structural repetitions in sonata forms.
This basic adjustment to small-scale sonata form to resemble the style of ragtime is actually not the least bit difficult. Rather than an AA BB paradigm as we'd expect in ragtime we could substitute a short repeating exposition that would present as AB AB that could fill the commensurate durational space of AA BB. George Rochberg's concept for this, called "time-space" is inelegant and bluntly literal, but it's arguably the best possible term we're looking for. Corresponding durational time-spaces within sonata forms and ragtime won’t need to be very strict.
Still, generally, if a ragtime strain is conventionally understood to be sixteen measures long and a conventional ragtime has an AABB procession before A returns, then the number of measures in that durational stretch would be sixty-four measures. This means that if you have a small-scale sonata exposition (something in the zone of forty measures) then you would be able to fulfill the cumulative AABB in a ragtime best with an AB exposition that has an internal structural repeat. A simple but perhaps necessary observation about sonata forms in the 18th century is to note that the repetitions should be considered structural. If you keep this in mind then an exposition with two themes can be mapped out as:
exposition repetition development recapitulation
A B A B C A B
Not coincidentally, what kind of popular form can this resemble?
verse chorus verse chorus bridge verse chorus
In strictly modular, macro-structural terms, the sonata form with a repeating exposition that's observed before the development and recapitulation can be thought of as remarkably similar in its overall concept to a standard pop song format.
There are crucial, substantial differences in thematic developmental economy between a sonata form and a pop song, to be sure, but the differences are not necessarily reducible to a matter of sheer modular form. Rather, we're looking at a continuum of differences in the realm of procedural development, conventions for thematic differentiation, and expansion of thematic content. When advocates of high art musical culture dismiss popular music they do not necessarily reject the elegant simplicity of pop music at the level of macro-structural considerations. They're rejecting the rudimentary presentation and repetition of thematic materials without long-form development.
Rejecting the possibility that the musical materials of popular styles can be used within sonata forms depends, in part, on a stereotyped and negative assessment of those materials. However, such a rejection may also be predicated on a stereotyped view of what sonata forms are, and this could be particularly true of those whose ideal sonatas date not from the 18th century but the 19th.
In Style & Music (University of Chicago Press, 1989), Leonard B. Meyer proposed that a key conceptual difference between 18th and 19th century approaches to large-scale form consisted in the difference between a “script” and a “plan” (pages 245-246). A “script” approach to a sonata would not require contrasting thematic groups in the way a “plan” approach to sonata, particularly in the post-Beethoven pedagogy, often required. With Meyer’s observation in mind, if a 19th century prescription for the sonata that thematic groups display contrast is abandoned, the lack of strongly contrasting themes within ragtime is no longer inherently incompatible with the syntactic scripts of sonata forms.
In recent scholarship the most extensive case made for understanding 18th century sonata forms as a range of scripts has been undertaken by James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy in their book Elements of Sonata Theory. Without attempting to summarize their findings or the debates that have surrounded their proposals, the Types 1 through 5 they delineate suggest that we no longer need to think of sonata forms as tethered to the descriptions of 19th century or even 20th century pedagogy. We can make use of their concepts of “rotation” and of the expositional and recapitulation spaces to formulate syntheses of ragtime style with sonata forms. While there are many things that could be said about the concepts they employ the simplest account of their proposed sonata scripts hinges on principles of thematic differentiation.
If we combine Hepokoski and Darcy’s concept of space within sonata forms with George Rochberg’s “time-space” we can propose that the conceptual foundation for a fusion of ragtime style into sonata forms has been established. The architectural precepts are in place and the question that remains is a practical one, could we demonstrate that it is possible to recompose an existing sonata form in such a way as to generally conform to recognizable rhythmic, harmonic and melodic traits we hear and see in ragtime?
Yes. By way of example, we can turn to early 19th century guitar music. Anyone who is studied in both ragtime and early 19th century solo guitar sonatas may already be able to observe the ways in which Giuliani’s second thematic group in his Op. 150 can be quickly transformed into a ragtime strain. While I have written at length about 19th century guitar sonatas elsewhere, there’s always the writerly axiom “Show, don’t tell.
So let’s demonstrate the possibility of rewriting a small sonata form into a ragtime style by way of recomposing Fernando Sor’s Op. 29 etude in E flat into a ragtime style. [after the break]
You'll see that this would be a case of an ABABCAB variant of sonata form with ragtime elements. The Sor etude in E flat required very little manipulation in terms of melodic lines or harmonic vocabulary to make the transition from a sonata form to a sonata-ragtime hybrid. A slightly different (in substance) adaptation of Sor's Op. 29, etude 10 in E flat into a ragtime/sonata hybrid can be heard over here starting at 02:45 and ending at 07:09.
Now that approach to hybridizing sonata form and ragtime depends on the brevity of the core themes. We'd be talking about expositions that are essentially only about as long as playing through two ragtime strains, and then repeating that material. What if we wanted to synthesize ragtime and sonata form at a larger scale, something approaching the traditionally longer or larger sense of scale we expect of sonata forms in the art music tradition? Toward this end the aforementioned work of Hepokoski and Darcy and George Rochberg’s “time-space” concept will help us.
But first let's take a detour. We need to review some details about ragtime that can be too readily missed by those who aren't already steeped in the style. For instance, there's no obligation to necessarily have four distinguishable strains. For ragtime, we don't "have" to have D material at the end. James Scott could recapitulate and recompose his B strain with a new ending, as he did in the Modesty Rag. So we're going to have that interrupting Trio but Scott presents us with a ragtime that has an A strain followed by a B strain that has an A return and a B return. It would even be possible to regard any introductory gesture as a theme upon which to draw in a development section. Rags by Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb can establish readily enough that it’s possible to open with minor-key themes.
What would not be practical is to repeat the second or third themes immediately after presentation. Here the conventions of ragtime would overpower the conventions of sonata forms. It would be very easy to repeat the first theme in an exposition and to repeat a second theme in a recapitulation; but to repeat a second theme that is presented within an exposition after a first theme would invite the ragtime convention of the immediate recapitulation of the first theme we know from, say, “The Entertainer”. For a ragtime/sonata fusion to work effectively we will need to have the second (and/or third) theme launch immediately into development and postpone the return of the first strain until we are prepared for a real recapitulation space.
The development section, in this large-scale fusion of ragtime with sonata form, would almost by necessity be where in traditionalist ragtime the A material would be coming back. This means that the syntactic climax of the A material would be, as we've noted earlier, pushed forward. If we were to conceive of a sonata form and a rag as a three-dimensional space that could map out the durational time-spaces for thematic regions we could look at it this way:
Now there are a number of things that could be said about the recapitulation space in a ragtime/sonata fusion. The first is that in a recapitulation region the example of Haydn shows us we could substantially reconceive the style or tone of a theme within a recapitulation area. A secondary theme in a minor key in the exposition could be brought back in a major key in the recapitulation. Another possibility is to recapitulate Theme 2 in one key and subject the theme to modal mutation in an immediate repetition. Repeating the second theme in the recapitulation would respect the ragtime convention of playing the second strain twice and simply move it further forward within the temporal space of the composition. It would also be possible to recompose Theme 2 or Theme 3 into altogether different styles while preserving the foundational gestures of the themes.
The reason this kind of intra-opus thematic mutation could work is because of a concept Hepokoski & Darcy introduced in their Elements of Sonata Theory, the concept of rotation. The simplest way to describe a concept that has tripped up some scholars and reviewers is to say that if A, B and C are presented in the exposition then we should hear an observable procession of A, B and C in the development section as well as the recapitulation section. The procession needs to stay firmly in that order. Stylistic deformation will be possible so long as the processional syntax of themes A, B and C (aka Groups 1, 2 and sometimes 3) is preserved throughout the sonata form.
Obviously this isn't always the case, certainly not in Chopin's B flat minor piano sonata, for instance, but in the context of a sonata where we plan to drastically change the style or idiom of a theme in a recapitulation then what rotation does is set up the expectation that A, B and C definitely will return but that there is room for surprise as to precisely how or in what form A, B and C will return. If we were to humor an unsuspecting audience it would seem best to save the dramatic mutations of recapitulation region themes to B and C material while leaving the A material in tact. This would, not coincidentally, also be the most plausible way to preserve all those syntactic points of commonality between what we’d identify as a traditional sonata with a traditional ragtime.
In summary, the possibilities for a fusion of the style of ragtime with sonata forms have been latent within the ragtime style since its inception. In the centennial year of Scott Joplin’s death there is hardly any reason to doubt that his work and the work of other composers of ragtime have gained a place in the American musical canon. Nor is there reason to doubt that the style he helped pioneer is one that can be adapted into sonata forms. If until now musicians and theoreticians have doubted the possibility and viability of such a musical synthesis I would propose these doubts may have depended on stereotypes about the vocabulary and syntax of ragtime and sonata forms that should be abandoned.