Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Record a Week - Piano Rags by Scott Joplin, Volume III (Piano by Joshua Rifkin)

WEEPING WILLOW - A Ragtime Two-Step
CHRYSANTHEMUMS - An Afro-American Intermezzo

SUGAR CANE - A Ragtime Classic Two-Step
THE NONPAREIL - A Rag And Two-Step
COUNTRY CLUB - A Ragtime Two-Step

I sense a theme here? Something about Rags and Two-Step, I think. Now I know the sensation of parents listening to their children's music and announcing 'it all sounds the same to me!' Not that I have any issue with this music, I actually think it's quite nice. It just takes some listening to hear what separates one rag or two-step from the next one. The style having mainly died out about a century ago, I decided to look up the definition.

*cited from Encyopedia Britannica Online, first page only.

ragtime,  propulsively syncopated musical style, one forerunner of jazz and the predominant style of American popular music from about 1899 to 1917. Ragtime evolved in the playing of honky-tonk pianists along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the last decades of the 19th century. It was influenced by minstrel-show songs, blacks’ banjo styles, and syncopated (off-beat) dance rhythms of the cakewalk, and also elements of European music. Ragtime found its characteristic expression in formally structured piano compositions. The regularly accented left-hand beat, in 4/4 or 2/4 time, was opposed in the right hand by a fast, bouncingly syncopated melody that gave the music its powerful forward impetus.
Scott Joplin, called “King of Ragtime,” published the most successful of the early rags, “The Maple Leaf Rag,” in 1899. Joplin, who considered ragtime a permanent and serious branch of classical music, composed hundreds of short pieces, a set of ├ętudes, and operas in the style. Other important performers were, in St. Louis, Louis Chauvin and Thomas M. Turpin (father of St. Louis ragtime) and, in New Orleans, Tony Jackson.

two-step,  ballroom dance appearing in about 1890 in the United States. Its origins are unclear but may include the polka, galop, or waltz. The dance consists of sliding steps to the side in 2/4 time. It was one source of the fox-trot, which in about 1920 overtook it in popularity, and the term two-step often refers to the fox-trot.

Well, there you have it. A further delve into the interwebs tells me that it generally consisted of 3 or four parts that followed one of two or three different patterns. Add up those facts and it's easy to see why it might sound similar. It's almost formulaic, but the loose rhythm of the right-hand melody keeps it just off edge enough to keep it from being formal (rooted in march music, according to Wikipedia). This record does not include his most famous work, Maple Leaf Rag (presumably on Volume I of this series), but does solidify my theory that Joplin was an excellent composer and probably would have been held in the regard that he wished for (he was grateful but always felt he was not taken seriously despite his fame) in a time not too far from when he was popular. Of course, by that time he would have had to be playing jazz instead, but it's easy to see that his capabilities would have allowed that to happen.

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