Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Scott Joplin

Dr. Bob Prescribes Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin died penniless and all but forgotten on April 1, 1917 in an asylum in New York City’s gigantic Manhattan State Hospital, his brain reduced to black-currant jelly by syphilis. He left behind him a “terminally unproduced opera” entitled Treemonisha and a body of piano rags that virtually defined the genre and are as important and representative a set of national piano works as are Chopin’s Mazurkas and Polonaises, Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances (which were indeed originally piano works, albeit for piano duet).  With his death began the big chill for Joplin’s wonderful music. In the half century-plus that followed, a tiny coterie of loyal disciples kept his name and music alive, including the pianist Max Morath (born 1926) and the scholars Rudi Blesh (1899-1985), Harriet Grossman Janis (1898-1963), and the pianist and musicologist Vera Brodsky Lawrence (1909-1996). (Rudi Blesh’s and Harriet Janis’ book, They All Played Ragtime, first published in 1950, was the first serious scholarly study of the subject; my revised fourth edition was published in 1971.) Enter the American musicologist, pianist, and conductor Joshua Rifkin, who was born on April 22, 1944 in New York City. A crazy-talented dude, he received degrees from […]

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Music History Monday: An American Original and an American Tragedy

On April 1, 1917 – 102 years ago today – the American composer and pianist Scott Joplin died at the Manhattan State Hospital on New York City’s Ward’s Island, which straddles the Harlem River and the East River between Manhattan and Queens. He was 48 years old. During the course of his compositional career – which spanned the nineteen years from 1896 to 1915 – Joplin composed 44 ragtime works for piano, a ragtime ballet and two operas. (A musical “vaudeville act”, a musical comedy, a symphony and a piano concerto were purportedly composed as well near the end of Joplin’s life. These works were never published, and the manuscripts have, presumably, been lost, leading some to wonder whether they ever really existed at all.) Embraced today as being among the greatest and most original of American composers; creator of the single most famous ragtime work of them all, Maple Leaf Rag of 1900; inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970; awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1976; and featured on a first-class postage stamp in 1983; Joplin died in almost total obscurity there at the Manhattan State Hospital, which was then – with 4,400 beds – the largest […]

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