Thursday, February 23, 2017

Los Angeles Public Library Central Library Blog: Scott Joplin, Treemonisha and American Opera

Scott Joplin (c.1867-1917) is profiled at, which features a Bibliography and comprehensive Works List by Dr. Dominique-René de Lerma,

Joplin's self-published piano-vocal score to Treemonisha (1911)

Alan Westby, Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Department,
2017 marks the hundredth anniversary of the death, at the age of 49, of Scott Joplin, one of America's first great composers, and the composer of arguably the first important American opera: Treemonisha. Rooted in African American culture, which we celebrate this month, Treemonisha pre-dated the first successful era of American-composed opera by nearly half a century. 
Operas had been composed in the United States since the mid-19th century, but American opera did not come into its own until the mid-20th century with successful works by such composers as George Gershwin, Gian Carlo Menotti, Philip Glass, and John Coolidge Adams. Decades before this post-World War II American opera boom, Scott Joplin wrote the earliest American opera that can make any claim to a place in the standard repertoire today.
Born in the area of present-day Texarkana in 1867 or 1868, Joplin first became a national figure with the publication of his "Maple Leaf Rag" for piano in 1899. With this hit composition Joplin-- nicknamed the "King of Ragtime"-- was given a publishing contract, rare for the time, and a national ragtime craze ensued. Joplin composed over forty piano rags, or rag-influenced pieces over the next two decades. The classically trained Joplin conceived his piano compositions not in the improvisational tradition that would lead to the development of jazz, but as reframing folk music as art music, such as Brahms had done with Hungarian Roma music in his Hungarian Dances, or Chopin with Polish music in his Mazurkas. Not satisfied with writing these popular piano pieces, Joplin aspired to write for the stage and create a distinctly American form of opera with roots in African American music. 

Treemonisha is Joplin's only surviving opera, though it was not his first work in this art form. His first stage work was a short ballet entitled Ragtime Dance written and performed in 1899, the year Maple Leaf Rag was published. Joplin's first opera, A Guest of Honor, is now lost. The subject of this opera was most likely a White House dinner hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt for civil rights leader Booker T. Washington. The 12-member Scott Joplin Ragtime Opera Company performed A Guest of Honor to favorable reviews in St. Louis in 1903. While touring with the company, Joplin was robbed, and the manuscript to his first opera was lost. 
Joplin wrote the story and libretto to Treemonisha. The main character of the opera, Treemonisha, is an 18 year old woman who has been adopted and raised by a couple on a plantation in Texarkana. Treemonisha is kidnapped by a conjurer who is fearful that the educated Treemonisha poses a threat to his influence over the community. Education triumphs over superstition once Treemonisha is rescued and returns to the community as their leader.
Joplin's inexperience as a writer and lack of practical experience in opera resulted in some dramatic weaknesses in the plot and staging of Treemonisha which have pointed out by critics since the first performances in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the story presents American themes with specifically African American concerns. The plot of the opera is quite different from many of the opera plots of the late 19th and early 20th, which typically involve love stories, often in the melodramatic and violent style associated with Italian verismo composers such as Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Puccini. Although there is a minor love interest in the story of Treemonisha, the central theme of Joplin's opera is progress and the advancement of a rural community through education. Thematically at odds with European opera, his story is in the line of thought of contemporary African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington, subject of his first opera. The character of Treemonisha, and the opera itself embody Washington's belief that progress was enabled through education. Also, by placing a female character as the leader of the community, Joplin reflects contemporary progressive thought which led to women's right to vote a decade after the composition of the opera. 

No comments: