Joplin's father was born into slavery, becoming a freedman with Emancipation in 1863. A musical individual, he encouraged the musical aspirations of his sons and daughters. Scott Joplin, who was originally self-taught, moved to St. Louis while still in his teens, by which time he was an accomplished pianist. Although adept in various styles, including that of contemporary classicists such as Louis M. Gottschalk, Joplin excelled in the currently popular ragtime music. In 1894 he was in Sedalia and soon afterwards began committing to paper many of the rags he had heard played by ragtime 'professors' and tunes he had himself composed. One of the latter, 'Maple Leaf Rag', was hugely successful and this recognition encouraged him to turn his attention to extended works in a quasi-classical style. His efforts at ragtime ballets (The Ragtime Dance) and ragtime operas (The Guest Of Honor) proved disappointingly uncommercial but his straightforward ragtime tunes continued to be very popular. A failed marriage, the death of his child and the fast decline of his health as he succumbed to a debilitating venereal disease, allied to his losing battle to be accepted as a classical composer, created a desperately sad atmosphere for his declining years. Despite his problems, however, Joplin completed another ragtime opera, Treemonisha. Unable to interest anyone in staging the opera, he paid for a run-through performance in 1915 only to see it, too, fail. The following year his illness entered its final stages, he was hospitalized and died some months later in April 1917.
In the early 70s ragtime suddenly became popular again, thanks in no small part to the work of Gunter Schuller's New England Conservatory Jazz Repertory Orchestra and Ragtime Ensemble. Ragtime's use and success on the soundtrack of a successful movie, The Sting (1973), brought Joplin to the attention of a new audience. His tunes including 'The Entertainer', 'Elite Syncopations', 'Solace I', 'Solace "I' and 'Chrysanthemum' were heard everywhere, often in rather stately recreations by Joshua Rifkin and other classically-trained pianists. Such versions would doubtless have pleased their composer as they avoided jazz inflections, but also failed to reflect much of their lively and sometimes earthy origins. Joplin's belated recognition asa pioneer of Third Stream Music was confirmed by an acclaimed staging and recording of Treemonisha by Schuller and the Houston Grand Opera, performed and released in 1975. Unfortunately most of Joplin's other scores for extended compositions have been lost. In 1997 his music was combined with that of Irving Berlin, another great composer from the early golden era, in a new musical The Tin Pan Alley Rag, which had its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, California.
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