Ragtime music deserves a reconsideration from both historical and musicological perspectives. It was last seriously considered in the early 1970s partly as a result of Joshua Rifkin’s pioneering recordings and Marvin Hamlisch’s use of the music for the soundtrack of The Sting, but that was nearly fifty years ago. Surely there’s more to be said about and through this music. Certainly it has a claim to be the first genuinely American concert music, and though there’s a lot of it, it’s not nearly as homogenous as one might think, any more than the dozens of songs by Schubert and Brahms are homogenous. Its greatest composers, among them Scott Joplin, married an American sensibility to European forms, straddling both popular and art music. Historically it forms a bridge between the concertizing and compositions of musicians like Blind Tom and early American jazz and especially Piedmont Blues. I also find that its popularity coinciding with the last decade of Mark Twain’s life, another American original, is particularly evocative.
Rifkin’s interpretations of the 1970s are still influential, but they’re almost a half-century old. More recently Joplin has been better served by a deeply researched recording of Treemonisha from Rick Benjamin and the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, released in 2011 by New World Records. It had been best known before then in Gunther Schuller’s version presented by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976; Benjamin’s research revealed that Schuller had taken considerable liberties with the score and probable original orchestration. Gramophone said about the release:
This set is the culmination of two decades of research, social anthropology and painstaking forensic reconstruction. And I can’t think of a more worthwhile task — musical archaeology that needed doing — than rescuing Joplin’s sole surviving opera from obscurity and misunderstandings, some well-meaning, others inexplicably stupid and sloppy. Understanding Treemonisha is not just about hearing Joplin’s achievements in the round; it’s about gaining a proper understanding of black culture during that historically nebulous period when jazz was in its baroque infancy. … Benjamin’s light-on-its-feet orchestration fits the music: genteel melodic lines swim like fish through pure water. … For a composer expert in “closed form” — harmonic ambiguity overrode ragtime’s rigid 16-bar phrases to flat-pack the structure into itself — the wonder of Treemonisha is Joplin’s flair for dramatic trajectory, the intensity of thematic development making his writing spring eternal. This is the most important document about the history of American composed music to have appeared in a long, long time. …
Philip Clark, Gramophone
After listening to Benjamin, the failings of Gunther Schuller’s 1975 DG recording become immediately obvious. Schuller’s glutinous orchestration is pitched somewhere between Falstaff and Oklahoma!, with some harmonies discreetly swung “jazzwards” in a desperate attempt to clinch Treemonisha as a proto-Porgy and Bess. Benjamin’s orchestrations, modelled after a smattering of surviving Joplin orchestrations and period orchestral primers, were made for his own 12-piece Paragon Ragtime Orchestra: one instrument to a part, cornets instead of trumpets, authentic antique percussion instruments.
A reconsideration of Joplin’s music — and ragtime music generally — might be a worthwhile task today as well: more musical archaeology that needs doing.
Marilyn Nonken will make a first few steps towards that reconsideration next May, when she performs Joplin’s “Bethena” on a program with Charles Ives’ “Concord” sonata at St. Bart’s. For now — and as an indication of the variety and delight of ragtime music — below you’ll find Rifkin’s performance of “Heliotrope Bouquet” (1907) by Joplin and Louis Chauvin.