Maple Leaf Rag
by Scott Joplin [playing time 3:20]  [Download the MP3]

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Scott Joplin was born in almost total obscurity; his birth date is probably in 1868 but is not known precisely. Formally trained in music as a youth, he was the pivotal figure in elevating ragtime from a rather maligned fad to both a national craze and a medium for serious art music, and certainly deserves the title given to him by his publisher John Stark: "King of Ragtime Writers." Best known for upbeat fare such as Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, Joplin's genius is perhaps most evident in his moodier efforts, such as the magnificent Solace and Gladiolus Rag. His career as a famous pianist and composer spanned only 18 years; he died of syphilis in Manhattan on April 1, 1917, at about the age of 49, after a dreadful period of physical deterioration. In 1976, he was awarded a posthumous and richly deserved Pulitzer prize for his music.

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On August 20, 1899, Scott Joplin signed a contract with music publisher John Stark & Son to publish a work Joplin had written sometime in the year or two before. Exactly where, when, and why this work came to be called Maple Leaf Rag appears to be as unclear as much of the rest of Joplin's early life, but in any event, it has become as familiar to the music lover as anything in the classical repertoire. Joplin wisely negotiated a royalty contract for the work (Stark paid him the princely sum of $0.01 per copy sold), and though Maple Leaf 's success did not make him wildly rich, it allowed him to live comfortably and gave him the financial stability to begin producing a splendid body of work.

Maple Leaf was far from the first rag ever written, nor was it even Joplin's first, but it helped establish the AA-BB-A-CC-DD format characteristic of "standard" rags. Usually this arrangement includes a modulation to the subdominant at the C theme; Joplin follows this convention here but returns to the home key of A flat for the D theme.

Although this is one of Joplin's earlier efforts, it is already filled with his characteristically sophisticated writing. Rather than a simple I-V7 oom-pah, Joplin signals the harmonic shifts throughout with highly directed bass lines, right from the very beginning:

(Listen for longer and finer examples of this in the C theme, where the rather light treble material is masterfully made weighter by the irresistible, multi-bar strides in the bass.) The A and B themes are tightly rhythmically linked, and the piece is filled with clever use of voicing, concluding with a marvelous chromatic example at the very end, against contrary motion in the bass:

Motivic links, contrary motion, chromatic movement, inner voices -- we could be talking Bach here! And indeed, since this is one of the first "real" pieces I ever learned to play, for me Joplin is probably second only to Bach in his influence as a composer on the music I love to play and write.

As the archetypal piano rag, Maple Leaf is certainly best arranged with the piano in the starring role. In this arrangement, the piano takes the A theme solo before being joined in the repeat by bass, low brass, and guitars and banjo weaving subsidiary lines around the piano part. (For those of you who like little musical games, listen for a very brief quote from another fine ragtime composer, Joseph F. Lamb, somewhere in this arrangement.) I have tried to support Joplin's outstanding writing by continuing his contrary motion and chromatic progressions into the accompaniment (e.g., a nearly complete chromatic scale in the bass at the very end), and I hope it creates a satisfying rendition of a genuine American classic.


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