Monday, June 28, 2010

Scott Joplin "Bethena" (1905)

Thanks to Phyllis Lee for alerting me to this!

Scott Joplin is known as "The King of Ragtime", with such famous pieces as Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer. Born near Texarkana, Texas in 1867/68, Scott Joplin began playing the piano at age 7, at the homes where his mother cleaned and did laundry.

Ragtime was popular between 1897 and 1918, ironically paralleling Joplin's career. In fact it was the publication of Maple Leaf Rag in 1899 spurred the popular spread of ragtime.

Early in his career, Joplin lived in Sedalia, Missouri. He married Belle Hayden in 1899, the marriage lasting only a few years. Although they had one daughter, she died only a few months after birth.

It was on a trip back to Sedalia, traveling through Arkansas, that he met Freddie Alexander, falling instantly in love. He wrote the piece "The Chrysanthemum"(1904) for her, which many regard as one of his most beautiful pieces. Listen to a bit of this upbeat ragtime song, since we'll contrast it with another piece at the end.



The two were married in June 1904 in Little Rock, Arkansas and took a train back to Sedalia, stopping a few days at a time to play concerts. It took a whole month to travel home and upon reaching Sedalia, Freddie was feverish. What seemed to be the flu, slowly turned to pneumonia and in September 1904, Freddie died. Only married 10 short weeks, Joplin was devastated. He left Sedalia for good after her funeral.

In his grief, Joplin wrote "Bethena"(1905). Experts believe that this was in honor of Freddie, and quite the contrast from "The Chrysanthemum" written when he fell in love. On the original publication there is a picture of a woman, which some have even speculated is a picture of Freddie.

I think if you listen to this, you'll hear the grief but also a type of endearment. Ragtime in its nature is not sad or depressing. The ability for Joplin to take such an upbeat genre and still convey sorrow is truly remarkable. I'd heard this piece before, not knowing the background; Context, once again, is everything.



Scott Joplin developed complications from tertiary syphilis in1916, and required admission to Manhattan State Hospital in January 1917 due to a "decent into madness". He died there April 1, 1917.

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