Joplin and joy
Scott Joplin wrote music of joy: jaunty music that pats you on the back and entices you to lift your spirits in its swing. It's hard to sit still and listen to Joplin rags. They make you feel their jolly, persistent rhythms as if you were the piano itself.Skip to next paragraph
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Joplin's music rolls along with irrepressible exuberance, bubbling, sometimes , like the chuckle of a friend or the splash of rushing waters, but always propelled effortlessly onward by the inevitability of its graceful progressions.
Take the famous ''Maple Leaf Rag.'' It leads you so slyly from one stage to the next that you hardly know how you got there. One moment you think it's getting serious, and the next you realize you were only being gently teased. By the end you're giggling with delight at all the surprising riches of life cast in abundance at your feet.
''Gladiolus Rag'' is another great one. To me it hints at courage in the face of great difficulties. Though it may begin with a hint of uncertainty, it ends in triumph.
Then there's ''Eugenia,'' the rag for a girl on a bicycle, it seems to me. I see her coasting along rolling, sunlit country roads in the summertime.
And when they are melancholy and tender, Joplin rags are tremendously reassuring, comforting as a lullaby. Listen to his ''Weeping Willow Rag.'' (What charming and surprising titles he came up with, too.) The fact that this one is called ''Weeping Willow'' only adds to its poignancy. Yet it is never sentimental. It doesn't tug at your heartstrings or assault your sensitivity. It politely offers you its company with grace and dignity. And yet there's no mistaking its intentions: It speaks of a strong and manly love.
And here, I think, is Joplin's most important message: There wouldn't be so much joy and wit in his rags if their exuberance were allowed to run wild. There is always a form, a structure that is strictly adhered to; and within this graceful framework the impact of the emotional message is all the more powerful. Like happy children who know the security of discipline, his melodies progress and grow with a joyous sense of true freedom.
Restraint, tact, and gentleness are not much in evidence in the so-called love songs of our era. Very likely the ardent fans of much contemporary music would be unmoved by Joplin's graceful melodies, their hearts having been toughened on stronger stuff.
Yet here is another delight of Joplin's music: His rags are more expressive than if accompanied by lyrics. His notes and their clearly developing patterns speak more distinctly of his feelings than words could ever do. And the clear tones of a single piano do them more justice than electronic organs, percussion, and backup from amplified violins. Simplicity, economy, clarity: less, here again, is more.
Scott Joplin's personal life was not a smooth or easy one, but he must have written his rags out of pure love. They reach out to you, they welcome you in and invite you to share their delight in being alive.
And, because of Joplin's very qualities of discipline (and, if you don't mind , good manners), you can listen to his rags again and again; they only improve with familiarity. Like friendship, they leave you not empty and craving a higher high, but full and at peace, grateful for the generosity of their beauty and their joy.