Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


A precursor in the history of jazz is the ragtime craze at the turn of the 20th century. Band music and dance music lends ragtime its formal structure: sectional, frequent repetitions of the sections (or “strains”), and, of course, notated (not the case with jazz). The standard AA/BB/A/CC/DD format can be seen in typical marches by John Philip Sousa (1854-1932), with C — called the “trio” — and perhaps D modulating to the subdominant key. Scott Joplin (1868-1917) is the big name in ragtime, but James P. Johnson (1894-1955), Jelly Roll Morton (1890?-1941), James Scott (1886-1938), Joseph Lamb (1887-1960), and Eubie Blake (1883-1983) were all masters of the genre.

Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag (1899) was not his first published rag, but it was his first big success. Syncopations are in the right hand, marked by the steady pulse in the left hand. This piece offers little of melodic interest. And the 16-measure sections contain regular subdivisions. Arpeggios using the minor third darkens the tone a bit. Like Sousa marches, energetic B sections are common. The original sheet music is marked by Joplin “Tempo di Marcia” (march time). Most of his rags are marked “Not fast” or “Not too fast.” Some pieces carry the warning, “Notice! Don’t play this piece fast. It is never right to play ‘rag time’ fast.” His own performance of the piece survives on a piano roll from New York, April 1916. He follows the published version closely, taking all the repeats. He does introduce some minor innovations in the bass line, and he plays the trio and D section an octave higher than written.

Joplin’s Ragtime Dance (1906) follows a different form: Intro/AA/BB/CC/DD/EE/FF, with A in the key of Bb and the following strains all in Eb. D, E, and F illustrate the novel effect of “stop time” in which the music’s many silences are punctuated by the pianist stomping his heel on the floor with each beat. This accentuates the syncopations all the more.

Joplin’s Gladiolus Rag (1907) is in form nearly identical to Maple Leaf Rag. It even has the upward minor arpeggios in the first strain and the following chords clearly evoke Joplin’s first hit. However, this piece, like Ragtime Dance, ends in a key different from its initial one (Ab to Db). It’s an odd and perhaps gauche feature of the genre and similar ones such as marches and dance music. But Gladiolus Rag is much more interesting: it’s melodic, more complex in textures, more adventuresome in the bass, and the harmonies include dissonances, even chromaticism. The C strain is especially thick with changing harmonies.

Solace (1909), subtitled “A Mexican Serenade,” is more tango than rag with its Latin rhythm. Formally the piece is almost identical with Gladiolus Rag. The C section includes unexpected fermatas, inner parts, almost four-part writing. The piece modulates from F major to G minor and back.

Euphonic Sounds (1909) shows Joplin stretching the boundaries of the genre. The piece is in a clear rondo form: Intro/AA/BB/A/CC/A. The B section is harmonically tense and expressive; we lose our sense of the key, as in an especially dramatic strain of a Sousa march, and it seems to wander about, unsure where to settle. So is this the influence of atonality on ragtime? A similar phenomenon is accomplished in the C section. These passages are balanced by the regular return of the opening strain.

Joseph Lamb’s Ragtime Nightingale (1915) contains an ascending left hand at the beginning reminiscent of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, even though Lamb, a white composer from Brooklyn, claimed to have been inspired by Ethelbert Nevin’s Nightingale Song. Lamb wrote sometimes dense, often romantic music.

James Scott’s Peace and Plenty (1919) illustrates Scott’s tendency towards technically difficult and dazzling work, instead of rags with romantic or moody atmospheres.

William Bolcom’s The Graceful Ghost is a ragtime piece from much later in the century by a University of Michigan music professor. You can see and hear this piece performed here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUHdrfi5WDc.

Works Consulted

Mann, Brian. Professor of Music, Vassar College. Class notes, 1982.