The Arts

Piano in the Backroom

Peter Batten recalls the magic of …

Ragtime. Does that word mean anything to you? Have you heard Alexander’s Ragtime Band? I mean the song, not the mythical band.

That was just a joke, but my serious point is to ask “What do you know about the music called Ragtime?”. Probably very little if you were born in the last 50 years. That is a great pity because you have missed hearing some beautiful music.

Let me take you back more than 100 years. Cinema was about to begin, radio was yet to come, television was not even conceived. The chief provider of home entertainment was the piano in the parlour, played by members of the family. Sheet music was very important for these players and music publishers became very wealthy. Suddenly, in the 1890s, a new form of music became available for the parlour pianists; the publishers began to print ‘Rags’.

Where did this new style of piano music come from? It is not easy to answer that question. At some point in the second half of the 19th century in the USA a number of young negro pianists, and some young white men, began to compose and perform pieces for the piano in what became the Ragtime style. These compositions were quite formal and resembled the marches of the day by having introductions, multiple themes, bridge passages, etc. Their most important feature was syncopation: the way in which the melody played by the right hand is off-set against the regular rhythm played by the left hand. In the 1890s these Rags began to be written down and were quickly published. The first published Rag was probably ‘The Harlem Rag’ by a fine pianist called Tom Turpin. But, in a very short time, one pianist/composer began to stand out from the crowd. His name was Scott Joplin and he was soon crowned ‘The King of Ragtime’.
Scott Joplin
Joplin’s most famous rag, named after the Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Missouri, was published in 1899. His success enabled many other ragtime composers to find publishers for their work. From the late 1890s until about 1917, when Joplin died, this new popular music flourished, both in parlour and theatre performance, and through the sale of sheet music. It was taken up by the money machine and the name Ragtime was used to sell many musical compositions and performances that bore little resemblance to the beautiful music of Joplin and his friends. Then, like so many forms of popular culture in the 20th century, it was replaced by the new “Phonograph”, the radio and the cinemas, as change became ever faster. The parlour piano fell silent and gradually disappeared.

Here I must make one absolutely fundamental point: Ragtime music is music for the piano. It was written down and the composers wanted it performed exactly as written. Even the correct tempo was usually indicated. Subsequently many rags were played too fast, which completely spoils the beautiful balance of the syncopation. Very quickly these compositions began to be orchestrated for dance bands and even brass bands, but, I insist, this is music for the piano.

The StingAt the end of World War 2 the people of the USA began to look back over the history and development of their culture. There was a limited revival of interest in Ragtime music; its history was recorded and many compositions were rescued for posterity. But the resurrection was short-lived. Then, in 1973, one of Scott Joplin’s most attractive compositions, ‘The Entertainer’, was used as theme music for a film called ‘The Sting’. Fortunately, although the film was not set in the era when Ragtime music flourished, the public were captivated by Joplin’s beautiful tune. This led to a huge revival of interest: dozens of recordings of the music of Joplin and his contemporaries were made, theatre performances were produced and even Ballets were choreographed.

Now, with the passing of time, some of that interest has faded. The music, however, has not lost its beauty and deserves our appreciation. If you have never had the good fortune to hear authentic Ragtime piano music, do try to sample it. CDs of Scott Joplin are easy to obtain. In fact, because of the great activity in the 1970s, they often turn up in charity shops. Good hunting!

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