Saturday, November 24, 2018

on Scott Joplin's work being listed in "Piano Scores" at the back of the Dover 2nd edition of The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap

Copyright (c) 2013, 2017 by John Borstlap
ISBN 9780486814483
ISBN 0486814483

Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History
Edward A Berlin
Originally published by the University of California Press
Copyright (c) 1980, 2002 by Edward A Berlin
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3064-9

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his era (2nd edition)
Edward A Berlin
Oxford University Press
Copyright (c) Edward A. Berlin 1994, 2016
ISBN 978-0-19-974032-1
ebook ISBN: 978-0-19-024605-1

Ragtime: It's History, Composers, and Music
edited by John Edward Hasse
Copyright (c) 1985 by John Edward Hasse
Schirmer Books
ISBN: 0-02-8716507
ISBN: 0-02-872650-2 (pbk)

It's one of those minor details that would probably not be conspicuous in reviews of the book, but it leapt off the page for me.  In the second edition of John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution there's a list of piano scores, available through Dover, understandably, and among those scores there's the complete piano rags of Scott Joplin (ISBN 0-486-25807-6). 

A century ago ragtime was popular but not entirely well-received.  In the three books listed above by Edward A. Berlin and the one edited by John Edward Haase music historians and scholars of ragtime have noted that a good deal of ragtime in the period from the 1890s emerged from what were known as coon songs.  The lyrics for many of these early coon songs were regarded as vulgar and trafficking in brutal, coarse language that depicted African Americans in egregiously stereotypical ways; the songs had texts that generally discussed violence (particularly with razors) and depicted African Americans as cowardly, shiftless, violent, and/or sexually promiscuous.  Scott Joplin, who aspired to elevate the musical style and form, was known to have said that he believed one of the primary reasons many who might otherwise appreciate ragtime as music could not do so was because of the sheer vulgarity of the lyrics for ragtime songs.

As Edward Berlin and others have noted, ragtime was primarily a song form, despite the fact that we now think of ragtime as an intrinsically piano-driven or piano-dominated body of music.  That Joplin's operatic efforts foundered is known among fans of ragtime, and that Joplin aspired to write music that would be taken seriously is also known.  Yet on the whole ragtime seems to have been regarded as light music (which in many respects it could be taken to be, but with the understanding that it has a modular construction that, as Adorno put it about so much light music, featured works in which any number of modular parts could be exchanged for others without altering the fundamental nature of the popular musical styles).

And yet in the second edition of The Classical Revolution Dover seems to have seen fit to include Scott Joplin’s collected piano rags as part of the "Piano Scores" section of scores you can get from Dover.   What is significant about this?

I would say the significance of ragtime being listed among piano scores published by Dover here in 2018 a century after Scott Joplin's death is that Joplin's work was finally taken seriously as a contribution to what we would now call "serious music", even if Joplin's work might be considered thoroughly light fare compared to Brahms' piano sonatas or piano works by Beethoven or keyboard music by Bach.  That may be the case as standard beliefs within classical music performance and study go, and yet as chroniclers of the lives of Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb have described their relationship, Lamb once said that he has a piece he was working on in which he had a passage with octaves moving in parallel motion that Scott Joplin recommended he revise so as to introduce contrary motion, which Lamb then did.  Joplin was eager to have solid voice-leading and part-writing in his piano music and in work made by friends and associates, it seems. 

Of the thousands of ragtime songs and instrumental works and novelty pieces that were published between the 1890s and 1920s (the period in which ragtime and nascent blues converged with Tin Pan Alley songwriting idioms to become what has since been called jazz) a relatively small subset of those works, mainly from the piano rag literature, has made it into the piano literature. 

Yet during its age of popularity at the turn of the last century ragtime was apparently regarded with a suspicion and alarm that could be compared, with a few caveats, to the contemporary African American popular music idioms known as rap or hip-hop.  In fact it seems that some of the core criticisms of the two genres made by those who are advocates of classical music as delineated by the ideals of German Romanticism and German idealism are not altogether different.  There were those that attempted to argue that to the extent that ragtime had any musical merit it was not necessarily traceable to African American or African influences.  Some even attempted to claim a Bohemian lineage for ragtime.  While the racist invective that underlay such a claim is something Edward Berlin and others have already addressed it may be worth noting in passing that Joseph Lamb did call one of his works "Bohemia", and early ragtime pioneers indicated debt ragtime had to Spanish musical idioms.  Ragtime itself had roots in African American songs but also, it seems, in salon music and "ragging the classics" was a popular activity within the emerging popular style.  Advocates of the music were able to point out that ragtime might introduce higher levels of syncopation than might have appeared in European salon music but that melodic invention was still present. 

A century ago opponents of ragtime would not have imagined that any of the music published under that name would end up in what is today considered the classical music canon.  Joplin himself was known to have regarded many of the lyrics for ragtime songs to be vulgar and an obstacle to appreciation of the musical qualities of the genre, and Joplin is indisputably the most famous composer in the ragtime genre. 

Of course a crucial difference between ragtime a century ago and rap, hip hop and electronic dance music today is the medium of composition.  Ragtime was composed at the piano and on the page (Joplin, it turns out, was regarded as a middling pianist who might compose with paper and pen and sometimes had to learn his compositions after working them out on the page); rap and contemporary dance music and song tend to be worked out in recording studios and using laptops and modern recording technology.  Then again, when the nascent mechanical mass-production music industry began to emerge in the late 19th century one of the primary beneficiaries was the genre now known as ragtime, which mortified advocates of German romantic music and European musical works more generally. 

Whether or not rap, hip hop and associated styles "clean up" in the way that ragtime did, or has, over the last 120 years remains to be seen.  Certainly Joplin's work has made it into the piano canon if Dover has seen fit to publish his works and mention them in the back pages of John Borstlap's second edition of The Classical Revolution.  If a popular dance style that was denigrated as unmusical trash during its age of peak popularity has since worked its way into classical piano repertoire published by Dover in our own time alongside the piano music of Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn then Dover's publishing decision may signal to us that something that began as popular music can eventually make it into the "classical" canon if the level of craft and musicianship is high enough, which, for Scott Joplin, it apparently has, at least in Dover's estimation. 

Which may involve an irony if Lowell H. Shreyer's observation in the Haase edited monograph on ragtime that early ragtime may have primarily evolved in banjo music before migrating to the piano as African Americans gained more access to the larger instrument.  Inter-instrument adaptation of idioms is common enough in the history of music but I mention this element if ragtime's history because Richard Taruskin made a point of noting in the first volume of his Oxford History of Western Music that many developments in written scores could merely constitute the first observable case of something being preserved in a musical score for posterity, but that the music itself could have predated such notation for generations if the musical idiom existed in oral and folk traditions. 

Yet since the habit of "ragging the classics", particularly Mendelssohn, has been attested by Edward Berlin and other authors noted in the books above, the study of ragtime is significant in relationship to the contemporary popular style of rap and hip hop in the sense that ragtime evolved as musicians sampled existing classical works and reinterpreted and revised the rhythmic phrases of existing classical works.  It has been noted of ragtime that the melodic phrases themselves don't have anything so inherently unique as to separate them from salon and march music that was contemporary to ragtime, but that the rhythmic phrasing was what set ragtime apart.

Yet here, too, ragtime in its earliest forms was not as syncopated as it would become in the later 1890s through the 1920s.  Early ragtime had more intra-measure syncopation than cross-measure syncopation and there was very little of what scholars have called "secondary ragtime", a flexible extension of 3+3+2 style patterns within four-measure phrases, or a 3+3+3+3+2+2, for instance.

Joplin died before his Piano Concerto could be completed and the reported manuscript of that work was lost, but between that lost piano concerto and his opera Treemonisha we know he was aspiring to elevate ragtime to the level of serious music.  He died before he could successfully complete that effort and, since his death, ragtime has managed to secure a place in the piano literature but is clearly not regarded as being as substantial as other forms of classical piano music.  But Debussy's cake-walk and the works of other European composers paying tribute to the style suggests that within Joplin's generation the style had become popular enough to have been heard by European composers and taken up in tribute or mockery (which is more how Stravinsky's take on Ragtime can come across). 

A contribution by Max Morath in the Haase monograph notes that although ragtime was initially associated with African American men from red light district music the popularity of the style exploded so quickly that many ragtimes were composed by white women such as May Aufderheide, Adaline Shepherd and Julia Niebergall, though many of those works have not gained the longevity of the rags by what is known as the "Joplin school", specifically the works of Scott Joplin himself, James Scott and Joseph Lamb.  Lamb himself may be seen as an outlier within ragtime since he was an Irish Catholic from the New York era who developed his love of ragtime through studying sheet music and only later befriended Joplin, while historically ragtime is regarded as having evolved more in the St. Louis region.   

As musicians playing ragtime, blues, and Tin Pan Alley songs began to amalgamate these respective styles and forms into what is now known as jazz the age of ragtime became the age of jazz, which received many of the censures from institutional American arts critics that was previously directed at ragtime. For this reason it’s worthwhile to consider, if only in passing in this essay, that there were many heated debates about the musical merits of ragtime, whether it was even “real” music and whether the style could transcend the gutter-level lyrics that were so often associated with the songs that dominated the style. The classic piano rags that we associate with the style today were proportionally a small body of work within the larger popular style and we know from what biographical work has been possible about the lives of Joplin and his associates, at least, that he intended to elevate the style to the level of art music.  Joplin himself managed to be well spoken and spoken well of despite the disdain that was often heaped upon the style of music he was known to compose.  John Sousa was known to have incorporated Joplin’s works into his concert programs.

All of which indicates that within the late 19th and early 20th century popular music, published and disseminated as published scores, existed in a continuum with concert music and that these styles mutually influenced each other, a point that was simple enough to observe when Dwight MacDonald wrote his polemical work “Masscult and Midcult”; high art and folk art managed to interact but he claimed that it was with the emergence of masscult and midcult that a fake high art developed from a top-down marketing regime deigned to sell a kitsch form of high art to unsuspecting masses.  MacDonald regarded jazz as a late blooming form of genuine folk music and jazz, as has been established by music historians over the last century, was a musical convergence of a variety of American popular and folk styles that drew upon ragtime.   

What is the significance of this?  Well, let’s turn to John Borstlap’s assertion about what contemporary classical composers of first-rate ability won’t be doing.

The Classical Revolution: Thoughts on New Music in the 21st Century
revised and expanded edition
John Borstlap
Dover Publications
Copyright (c) 2013, 2017 by John Borstlap
ISBN 9780486814483
ISBN 0486814483

page 21
... A contemporary composer with the talents of a Beethoven, Mahler, or Debussy will not be found among the "composers" who think that tonality is a superfluous and outdated tool or that they can infuse their work with the drab confections from pop or world music, jazz or film music [emphasis added], without restricting the art form's potential.  Given the immense richness of past achievement, a really great talent will try to emulate, not to destroy or deny it. ...

So what was Debussy doing writing a cake-walk? 

What was Ravel doing making use of gestures that could be found in blues and jazz?  If by some alchemy of sonata form or concerto conventions Ravel can draw upon chords and melodic gestures that might appear in jazz but does not write jazz the alchemy, at least as Borstlap seems to describe it, is the process by which Ravel did not write jazz. If Ravel bothered to include the word “Blues” in the second movement of his second sonata for violin and piano how did he avoid infusing his work with drab confections from pop, world music (since blues was an American rather than a French form of music, after all), or jazz (which, as we’ve been observing here, evolved out of ragtime and other American popular styles). 

If Ravel in his time did not see drawing upon blues and jazz vocabulary as a decision that would restrict the potential of the art form known as classical music then why should we?  Would not emulating the past achievement of Ravel entail the possibility of making use of blues, ragtime, country and other forms of American vernacular and popular music as a way to explore possibilities for sonata forms, fugue and other 18th century developments of musical syntax and form?  If a cakewalk was good enough for Debussy it was surely also good enough for Scott Joplin who, by all accounts, was a man living in the land where the cake walk dance and the style of ragtime were invented.  If ragtime has gone from being seen as a musical scourge in the eyes of those who saw the Germanic symphonic tradition as the apotheosis of good music to becoming part of a canon of piano literature in the Dover 2nd edition of John Borstlap’s The Classical Revolution, ragtime seems to have gone from being regarded as a drab confection from popular music (and a prototype of jazz) to being included in Dover’s catalog as part of the immense richness of past achievement.  

One of the core tensions in The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap lays dormant in the gap between his prescribed precepts and prohibitions for contemporary classical composers and the liberties taken by the historical exemplars he invokes.  It can also be found in the distance between the prescription Borstlap has for the present regarding popular music and jazz and the historical process through which ragtime went from being late 19th century popular music to being 21st century classical music available through Dover editions.  It is possible the boundaries between high and low musical styles are more permeable in historical terms than Borstlap has allowed them to be in his theoretical proposal about what contemporary composers of classical music should be doing or not doing.


This post was partly inspired by reading Ethan Hein's interaction with a number of people about hip hop as popular music.  While I admit hip hop isn't exactly my favorite style I've been enough of a fan of ragtime in my life to recognize that there are some fascinating parallels between the ragtime debate of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States and more recent debates about the musical value or lack thereof in rap, hip hop and electronic dance music.  Since in historical terms the age of ragtime transformed into the age of jazz ragtime's history as popular music that became an accepted genre in the classical piano literature seems pertinent to a couple of things Ethan Hein has been interested in exploring.  

Ragtime exploded in popularity because of manufacturing innovations for pianos in the United States and also because of the advent of player pianos and piano rolls.  The comparison is necessarily an imperfect one but ragtime could be seen as benefiting from what was then new production and publication technology and, as noted above, the "ragging the classics" practice within ragtime could be compared to a more contemporary custom known as sampling.  The number of parallels, imperfect or indirect as they might seem to some, perhaps, between ragtime and rap as genres of popular song, seems worth considering. 

And since pretty much all ragtime that I'm aware of from the Scott Joplin/James Scott/Joseph Lamb school of ragtime is gloriously public domain by now it's ripe for sampling.  

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