Some Thoughts on the Playing of Ragtime

Ever since I saw the great Max Morath back in 1971 do his one man show “At the Turn of the Century,” which revolved around the music of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries, I’ve been enamoured with the music of Ragtime piano. It’s the only real piano music, outside of the occasional art song/lied accompaniment, that I play. I love Ragtime. Coming from the pen of a master of the form it’s serious stuff; worthy of any recital — right next to a set of Chopin etudes or Rachmaninoff preludes; which is why I find it distressing that it is not taken more seriously.

Ragtime’s influence on Western music cannot overestimated. What we identify as those distinctively American musical styles: jazz and commercial popular music most definitely had their roots in Ragtime. Nevertheless, the fact that Ragtime was America’s first popular music, and in spite of its problematical origins should not predispose one to question Ragtime’s musical integrity. The great Ragtime scholar Rudi Blesh, to whom we all owe a prodigious debt in keeping the flame alive prior to its rebirth in the 70’s, succinctly explains Ragtime’s importance and originality in his introduction to “Classic Piano Rags” published by Dover. One of the aspects of Ragtime Mr. Blesh discusses, which I wish to cover here is how one treats a classic rag by Joplin, Lamb, Scott and others.

The first issue of concern is tempo. After more than forty years since the rebirth of Ragtime’s popularity via Joshua Rifkin’s seminal recordings of Joplin rags for Nonesuch, and, in spite of the exhortations by the composers (especially Joplin himself) on almost every first page of the score, and the insistence by Ragtime scholars like Mr. Blesh and Max Morath to slow down, people still insist on playing Ragtime fast. Part of the blame goes to the use of Joplin rags (inspired by success of Mr. Rifkin’s recordings) in orchestrated form by Marvin Hamlish as the principal soundtrack music for “The Sting.” Although the soundtrack did a lot to galvanise popularity for Ragtime it left a damaging impression as to how it is to be played. Forgetting the fact the era setting for the movie is wrong (the movie is set in the 30’s, Ragtime’s popularity had eclipsed by the early 20’s), the performances are much too fast. Hamlish simply ignores Joplin’s tempo markings (March Tempo, Slow March Tempo, Slow Drag, Not Fast, etc.) as well as the note in the upper lefthand corner of almost every (particularly the later rags) title page: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast!” Nevertheless, the Ragtime craze took off; invariably to the detriment of the music. Itzhak Perlman & Andre Previn released a recording during this time which was an abomination of Joplin’s rags. First off they are unbelievably fast. Their whole approach to the music was that every piece was allegro con brio or faster, as if they were trying to see how many rags they could squeeze onto a single LP. Secondly, the fact that they are arrangements for violin & piano is noisome. Likewise, Gunther Schuller, with what was basically a pick up band of New England Conservatory students, released a recording of the Redback Book, which was nothing more than some stock arrangements of which Joplin never approved. Also performed much to fast. Ragtime is piano music, as idiomatically piano music as a Chopin etude. Like Chopin, Joplin has been transcribed countless times. And just like Chopin, the arrangements (Le Sylphides comes to mind) are left wanting. In both cases the essential nature of the music is lost. It simply sounds wrong.

Then there’s the matter of interpretation. Although Ragtime evolved from rather dubious circumstances, and the despite the fact that it had become a popular sensation, Scott Joplin considered his musical form as serious classical music. He became even more serious about it as time went on, even to the point of writing an opera in Ragtime style. Ragtime had developed its own structure to which even this day Ragtime composers such as Max Morath, William Bolcom and William Albright have followed quite faithfully. The typical rag usually followed in an AABBACCDD pattern. Of course, like any musical format, this is a fluid design. Joplin himself occasionally deviated from the formula which he was so firmly established (e.g., Magnetic Rag). This structure goes to the very essence of how to “interpret” Ragtime. One thing we need to keep in mind is that Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, James Scott, et al were late 19th Century musicians. Rubato and shifting dynamics were as important to the playing of Ragtime as it was to Schumann, Brahms, or Franck — even more so. With this hybrid blend of popular song and classical intention the performer is afforded a level of flexibility that may not be available in playing a traditionally classical piece. The only other 19th Century composer who comes to mind whose music is open to an equally flexible interpretation is Chopin.

The secret is in the repeats. The concept is basic: you never play something twice the same way. Chopin’s development in the shorter pieces consists of merely taking a very complete melodic idea and repeating it with ornamentation: a style very much in keeping with French Baroque practise, except he wrote out his ornaments instead of improvising them. In Ragtime however, the repeats are literal which poses a different set of problems concerning variety. Gerald Moore emphasises this point in his “The Unashamed Accompanist” when dealing with a strophic song. He demonstrates, in this case (he uses Schubert’s Das Wandern as his example), how the text determines the character of the realisation. The notes don’t change, but the manner in which they are played is. This is not dissimilar to the way one plays Ragtime, even though there isn’t any text to tell the pianist to vary the repetition.

So, how literally or liberally should someone play the repeats in a rag? How much leeway does the performer have? Well, I guess that ultimately comes down to a matter of one’s musical sensibilities, understanding of Ragtime, and (God willing) good taste. As grateful as I am for Mr. Rifkin in making his recordings and by playing them at acceptable tempi, I am frustrated by the lack of imagination or (dare I say) feeling. Each rag is played like every other; i. e., with very little dynamic or tempo flexibility. As I play through each of the eleven different rags I know I become more and more aware of how emotionally profound and complex each one is, and how expressively diverse they are as a group. To play all Ragtime the same way is to do it a great injustice. It would be a disservice to Joplin if one were to play Maple Leaf, Gladiolus, Breeze from Alabama, Solace, and Magnetic all in the same way. Each one has its own integrity as a work and contains a whole variety of expressive possibilities which should be explored, just as one would with each Brahms Rhapsody or Rachmaninoff Prelude.

I realise that the Ragtime “craze” has long since past, and that Ragtime now has a chance to be taken as seriously as its composers wanted. These miniatures are often emotionally profound, notwithstanding their primarily major key modalities. Just listen to, and FEEL the pathos behind the first part (the Louis Chauvin part) to Heliotrope Banquet. Are you really going to play that the way you would the Maple Leaf Rag? You can’t approach the sublimely atmospheric and intimate Solace the same way you would the Chopinesque Gladiolus. Ragtime is primarily a musical form not unlike a rondo or sonata-allegro; but, it is also style of music — one that is much, much more complex and interesting than most have been led to believe. So, if you are planning to incorporate Ragtime into a recital programme, I hope you intend to treat it with the emotional and stylistic complexity that it deserves.


2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Playing of Ragtime

  1. trenchantly and absolutely right. most young pianists forget that there’s a correlation between the late 19th / early 20th cy march (think: sousa) and the rags of joplin &c. — not merely in the structural form (think: verse, verse, trio), but in the tempo as well.

    this essay deserves wide circulation and distribution; i would love to see it in Klavier magazine or someplace similar. REF, why not follow up with a suggested discography of **good** performances / performers?


  2. Thanks for this very erudite essay on Joplin. I am bewildered by the many renderings of Joplin (including most of them on YouTube) that are played so fast as to be nearly unrecognizable. Joplin would be spinning in his grave. What part of “It is never right to play ragtime fast” do they not understand? And your comments about interpretive variation in the repeats are also right on target. For example, I find that playing the repeat of the second theme in “Wall Street Rag” more slowly and grandly than its initial playing is a very effective way to emphasize that theme. But that’s just me. I do wonder how much rubato, and how much pedal, Joplin would’ve stood for. The rare times when he writes a pedal into the score suggests that he didn’t want it used much int he normal playing of his pieces, but I’m not sure. Playing with the pedal throughout may be a matter of modern sensibilities taking over. I’d be interested in opinions on this.


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