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Blog for 10 February 2009

Is Ragtime “Classical Music”?

Ragtime enthusiasts frequently find themselves on the defensive, having to justify their love of this variety of music to a whole host of hostile and implacable critics. Lovers of modern jazz have clearly shown their distain for and disinterest in ragtime despite a determined propaganda campaign to win them over that was launched by ragtime apologists. The mood and spirit of modern jazz seems to hover between the feelings of anger and defiance. An audience looking for those dark and gloomy feelings to be reflected in their music will never enjoy ragtime because the feelings and emotions that characterize ragtime are entirely contrary. Ragtime is happy, joyful, playful, danceable, and uplifting.

The mythic image of the modern jazz musician is also the exact opposite of the popular conception of the ragtime pianist. The iconic jazz musician is a failed, impoverished, slovenly-dressed, chain-smoking, angry, embittered heroin addict wailing into the foggy night through a battered saxophone in a sleezy part of a grimy, crime-ridden city. This image actually appeals to jazz fans who have pronounced it “cool ” — and “cool,” never let us forget, is the highest form of benediction.

The jazz fan (who refers to himself variously as a “jazz scholar,” “jazz expert,” or “jazz connoisseur”) also imagines himself to be “cool," because he proclaims to the world that he alone possess the intellectual and political sophistication to understand this nearly formless music and to empathize and identify with its moody creators. He is willing to sit at a small table, smoking unfiltered cigarettes in a crowded, smoky, poorly-lit basement bar in a dangerous part of town listening to the tortured genius play. This gives the jazz fan the absolute certainty that he is superior to everyone else. The jazz fan is empowered and uplifted through his illusory identification with the historic political, economic, and cultural “struggle” of the urban artist against “the man.”

Now, take the popular stereotypic image of the ragtime musician. At least in the eyes of jazz fans, ragtime will be forever associated with the painfully uncool image of the 1950s ragtime pianist: the grinning white male pounding away on an out-of-tune old upright piano with thumbtacks pushed into the hammers. The iconic ragtime “pie-annie player” sports a garish vest, derby hat, frilly sleeve garters over a pink and white candy-stripped shirt, and tops off his raiment with a comedy bow-tie. This costume is not actually authentic to the ragtime era but was created by Hollywood costume designers for the saloon pianist in movies about the Wild West. As unhistorical and anachronistic as it may be, this is what ragtime pianists wore in the 1950s as they banged away in a pizza parlor to an audience of white, suburban lower-middle-class kids and their boring starched-shirt, helmet-haired, working-class, Lawrence-Welk-loving, protestant-church-going parents. In this ragtime setting, everything is homogenized, sanitized, sterilized, standardized, pre-planned, pre-packaged, pre-approved, and pre-digested. Nothing is left to chance. It is entirely safe, predictable, and soul-destroying. Worst of all, the audiences for this sort of music actually enjoyed themselves and thought the music was fun and wholesome. This offended jazz fans most particularly. Music was not supposed to be about fun. Music was supposed to be about pain and the political struggle against injustice.

No amount of scholarly arguments — that ragtime is a form of jazz, that ragtime is the precursor to jazz, that ragtime is essentially an improvisational music just like jazz, that ragtime is the product of Black American composers, that ragtime has its roots in West African tribal music, etc. — would sway the jazz fan. The battle to win jazz fans over to ragtime was lost before it had begun. The 1950s destroyed any chance that authentic 1900s ragtime music could gain a fair hearing.

The ragtime enthusiast, however, did not give up easily. Since he could not convince jazz fans to take ragtime seriously, he then set his gaze on the classical music world. The arguments were
accordingly retailored to appeal to the new group of potential converts. Now we heard the argument that ragtime was a type of home-grown American classical music. After all, they argued, it was published in piano arrangements just like Chopin’s music was published. One ragtime composer even wrote an opera, which is the most exalted and snobbishly admired form of classical music. Therefore, ragtime simply must be classical music. Furthermore, the St. Louis Ragtime publisher John Stark, proclaimed in his advertising hyperbole that the sheet music in his catalogue was “Classic Ragtime.” In a daring act of false logic and semantic ignorance, it was assumed that Stark's use of the word “classic” therefore constituted absolute proof that ragtime was classical music.

Ragtime, we were also told, was the exact opposite of jazz. Ragtime was not an improvisational type of music. The performer was supposed to play exactly what was written on the page, just like classical music, in respect to the intentions and the genius of the composer. This argument, while understandable, was historically false.

As an aside, while it is a convention of modern classical music performance to worship the score and treat is as holy scripture, classical music performance up until the late nineteenth century was indeed an improvisational art form. Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, to name but a few, were famous improvisers and dazzled their audiences by creating impromptu variations on musical themes suggested by members of the audience as part of nearly every concert. Also, the cadenza section of piano concertos was designed to allow the performer a chance to show off his improvisional skills using themes from the concerto.

Nevertheless, the problem was that fans of classical music along with jazz fans shared the same image of ragtime; it was low-brow, 1950s rinky-tink, honky-tonk out-of-tune pizza parlor music played by Jo Ann Castle on the Lawrence Welk Show or on countless LPs by derby-sporting piano players wearing sleeve garters and garish vests.

Then, a miracle occurred.

In the 1970s, a respected young classical pianist by the name of Joshua Rifkin recorded three LP albums of the music of Scott Joplin
arguably the most talented composer of rags. Whether he was aware of the arguments of the apologists or not, Rifkin approached the piano music of Scott Joplin as if it had been composed by Bach. Rifkin took the revolutionary step of recording the music on a tuned concert grand piano. This had never been done before. It was a shock. Traditional ragtime fans grew vaguely suspicious. Rifkin actually played the music exactly as it was printed. He took the bold approach of assuming that the composer actually had “intentions,” and that these were to be respected. This had never been done before. Ragtime fans began to murmur their objections. Rifkin’s playing was cool and elegant. The rags of Scott Joplin in his hands were no longer fun: they were serious. The music was no longer entertaining: it was thought-provoking. Instead of inspiring light-hearted gaiety, the music inspired deep reflection on the human condition. Joplin's "Rose Leaf Rag" and "Gladiolus Rag" were suddenly revealed to be works of genius. They were no longer just goodtime "songs" on par with the "Beer Barrell Polka." This was the last straw for traditional ragtime fans. They now openly revolted against Rifkin and his high-brow classical approach that was ruining all the fun of ragtime.

The problem is that traditional ragtime fans failed to understand what their true motivations were. On the surface, they believed that their goal was to win new audiences to ragtime music, whereas in fact, their unconscious and unstated goal was a more dramatic cultural revolution. They did not want to win the masses over to ragtime music: They wanted to win the masses over to the 1950s pizza parlor world. It was, in essence, a cultural battle identical to and presaging the present-day culture war between so-called red states and blue states.

The campaign to win over the classical world backfired precisely because it succeeded and failed simultaneously. Rifkin’s recordings did not convert classical music fans to the lower-middle-class world of the pizza parlor. Instead, it converted thoughtful and above-average pizza parlor people to switch camps and move over to the world of classical music. Rifkin created a bridge between the two previously separated worlds. While the ex-pizza parlor people may not have suddenly felt the urge to embrace Igor Stravinsky or Charles Ives, it was an easy jump from Scott Joplin to Ernesto Nazareth and then to Johann Strauss, Jr. Thanks to Rifkin, the world of classical music was now much more approachable and enjoyable. Millions of young suburbanites could tune into a classical radio station and be certain of having broadcasts of Bach tempered by airings of Rifkin’s stately and majestic recording of “The Maple Leaf Rag.” The pizza parlors emptied and soon closed. Concert halls filled up with a new, young audience eager to escape the bland cookie-cutter suburban world from which they came.

Given this interesting historical background, the question remains: Is ragtime classical music?

The answer, of course, examined through an accurate historical perspective is “no.” Ragtime is not classical music. Ragtime is popular music. Classical music and popular music serve entirely different purposes and have diametrically opposed motivations behind their creation. In general, a classical composer uses music to express his deepest emotions and experiences. Classical music arouses the intellect and the passions. It addresses the deepest questions of human existence. Classical music is sophisticated and intelligent. The impression is that it cannot be appreciated by the uninititated and the uneducated. Of course, classical composers were traditionally supported and constrained by the patronage system. Poverty may have obliged Mozart to accept commissions for works he might not otherwise of written, but his patrons probably never asked him to "dumb it down." The point of sale was a single event
the check from the patron rather than multiple points from a sheet-music buying public.

As a performance art, classical music serves the goal of giving the performer an opportunity to display his virtuosic and musical abilities. A classical performer, almost by definition, is the product of decades of disciplined and diligent practice to perfect his skill at his instrument. The training is arduous and expensive. It is the most undemocratic type of music because only very few humans have the ability to master an instrument as demanding and difficult as the violin or the piano, let alone any of the instruments of the symphony orchestra. Even fewer humans have the dedication and ability to learn how to express intellect, subtlety, cleverness, and emotions through music.

Popular music, on the other hand, has its origins in folk music. It is the music of unlettered village people. Its performers are largely self-taught amatures. The music itself is simple in structure and content. It is frequently of a ceremonial nature, designed to serve certain duties during events such as weddings, funerals, fairs, processions, and, above all, dances.

In the United States, at the end of the nineteenth century, popular music became an enormous industry through the development of the giant sheet music publishing companies, soon followed by the even bigger recording industry. These industries further evolved away from the marketing or physical product to the management of intellectual property, i.e., copyright and licensing rights. Popular music exists for the purpose of making money for copyright holders, publishers, recording companies, artists, and composers.

As the American popular music industry grew and organized itself during the last decade of the nineteenth century, the composers of popular music became increasingly professionalized. They were no longer the village musician who thought up a new tune for the dancers at the next barn dance. Publishing houses employed professional composers who sat in an office all day long and wrote new generic tunes with the sole goal of making money. Professional popular music composers would have laughed at the idea that they had “intentions” that needed to be respected. Their only intention was to make money. They wrote what they thought might appeal to the masses and sell in large quantities. Music was how they put bread on the table, not necessarily how they expressed their innermost feelings.

Yet despite all this, the manufactured product that emerged from these popular music factories was amazingly good and frequently excellent. While it would be a grave mistake to equate the rags of Scott Joplin or the popular songs of Cole Porter or George Gershwin with classical music, the musical output of these and many other popular composers was nevertheless of such excellent quality that it may (and should) endure for centuries as the pinnacle of American musical achievement in the twentieth century. Indeed, as Rifkin's recordings and as Gershwin's successful forays into classical music proved, the border between popular and classical music could be quite fluid.  In fact, many composers of popular music, such as Gershwin and Ferde
Grofé, easily transitioned back and forth between between popular and classical music. Nevertheless, Joplin and Gershwin are among the exceptions. Few would argue that the George Botsford's "Black and White Rag" belongs in the same category as Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

Despite its alleged folk origins and despite Scott Joplin's genius, ragtime is nevertheless largely the commercial product of the music publishing industry. It was created for the sole purpose of appealing to the masses and of making money. Neither Scott Joplin nor Irving Berlin sat in an ivory tower composing music as a way to express their inner pain. They both had the same motivation: to write the best quality music they could so that it would appeal to the widest audience and earn them the most money. It is difficult for many ragtime fans today to accept the fact that Scott Joplin earned his money and put food on his table through composition and publication. His intention was to sell sheet music rather than to dictate to future pianist how his compositions were to be played. Once the music sold to a customer, Joplin probably did not care what the customer did with it. Only the point of sale rather than the musical aftermath mattered. Joplin learned this lesson the hard way. His most brilliant works were the least financially succesful. Every sheet music publisher Joplin visited refused to publish both his opera "Treemonisha" and his most spectacularly brilliant rag "The Magnetic Rag." Joplin eventually resorted to paying money out of his own pocket to see these works printed. Similarly, "Gladiolus Rag" was a financial disaster for its publisher. Probably the only reason any of the big New York publishers took a chance on Joplin was that they knew they could plaster onto the cover the advertising blurb: "By the composer of the Maple Leaf Rag." This, it was hoped, might generate a few sales that would otherwise have been lost if the customer actually took a glance at the technically advanced score behind the colorful cover.

Since ragtime is not classical music, should it played exactly as written? Certainly, one may play it exactly as written if that is what one wants. The problem is that there exists today a large and vociferous camp among ragtime fans and pianists who insist that “the composers intentions” must be honored by playing the music exactly as published. In most cases, I suspect that this faction is guilty of an understandable confusion. They are confusing the objectives of piano pedagogy with the musical goals of a professional performer. In other words, they remember how their piano teachers insisted that they play exactly what was printed on the pages of their childhood piano method books. They fail, however, to understand that their teachers obliged them to observe every note and dynamic marking because it is the job of the instructor to teach the student how to read and follow musical notation accurately and correctly. Printed music is a complicated set of instructions. Teachers teach students how to read these instructions.

A professional performer, on the other hand, does not perform a piece in order to show how well he can follow directions. On the contrary: he performs a piece in order to show how creative he can be within the general framework of the composition.

Nevertheless, the attitudes of those ragtime fans whose personal musical development has been arrested at an early childhood phase of elementary piano lessons prevails today. This approach, however, is demonstrably unhistorical. Scott Joplin’s piano roll performances of his own rags show that he was not restricted to the printed score. Since Joplin introduced all kinds of clever improvisational variations into his own performances and since Joplin saw no need to stick to the printed score, why should anyone today feel so constrained?

Indeed, original contemporary recordings of ragtime either on 78 RPM record or piano roll are all notable for the freedom of improvisation enjoyed by the performer. The printed score was a starting point that provided the performer with the basic melody and chord structure. The arrangement was the product of the musical genius of the performer. In this sense, ragtime has much in common with both jazz and pre-twentieth-century classical music.

Those modern ragtime fans who insist on the sanctimony of the “text” are also ignorant of the brutal facts of the music publishing industry. Popular music such as ragtime was published with the sole goal of selling sheet music. No publisher printed music as a favor to the composer or as an act of charity. Both the large and small publishing houses employed professional arrangers whose job it was to arrange each score so that it could be played by the average amateur pianist.

Who was the average amateur pianist during the ragtime era? Music industry analysts observed that the average customer for sheet music was a teenage girl who had three or four years of piano lessons behind her. Thus, every published arrangement had to be tailored to the modest abilities of such a customer.

Naturally, certain exceptions slipped through the cracks. Both the “Maple Leaf Rag” and Zez Confrey’s “Kitten on the Keys” sold in vast quantities and made fortunes for their publishers even though they were published in complicated arrangements that were beyond the ability of the average pianist. Pieces of this nature, however, sold well in sheet music format because the tunes were enormously catchy and were well and widely exploited on record and piano roll. The potential sheet music customer heard the music, loved it, wanted to play it, and rushed out to buy the sheet music in the vain hope that she would be able to learn it. The music industry did not care that the customer could not play the piece. It only cared that she had bought the sheet music.

Rags that had poor mechanical exploitation were marketed solely on appearance at the sheet music counters where sheet music was sold. The potential customer would be initially reeled in by the colorful cover design. She would when open up the music and see how easy the music would be for her to play. This meant that it would probably be arranged in an easy key such as C major. The melody would largely be represented in single notes rather than octaves and full chords.  It would mean that there would be very few bass octaves, few chords of more than three notes, and very few notes suspended by ledger lines above the treble or below the bass staffs.

In short, the published score in ragtime sheet music is not the same thing as the published score of a work by Chopin or Liszt. Chopin’s sheet music was not published in order to sell copies to the masses. It was designed to represent and preserve the genius of the composer for the benefit of other professional pianists, composers, and serious music students. The cost of publication was frequently underwritten by wealthy aristocratic patrons. Market forces did not determine or constrain classical musical publication.

In stark contrast, ragtime compositions, like all other popular music, were published with the express goal of making money. The composer’s only intention was to sell copies of his piece, thus, he was perfectly willing to see a professional arranger transform his manuscript
or, in most cases, transcribe his live performance into a manageable and saleable format that would adhere to the strict conventions of popular music publishing.

Take for instance, the performance styles of the great ragtime pianist of the era and compare them with the published arrangements of their rags. Lucky Roberts' recorded arrangement of his “Music Box Rag” bears almost no relation to the published arrangement of 1914. Jelly Roll Morton’s various recordings on record and piano roll of his own composition “The Pearls" is remarkably different from the published arrangement. These men were hardly upset that the publishing houses did not “respect their intentions.” Frankly, they were probably delighted that their own performance style was unrepresented in the published sheet music, because these men made their livings as professional pianists who had to distinguish themselves from other professionals. Having their arrangements published would have meant revealing their pianistic tricks and innovations to rivals. Besides, most of these professional composer/pianists never played the same piece the same way twice. There was never any one official “score” or arrangement. Each performance was the unique and original expression of their improvisational genius.

So again, the question remains: should one play ragtime exactly as published? The more refined and historically accurate answer is: play the music exactly as published only if you want to imitate the performance style of the amateur teenage girls to whom the sheet music was originally marketed. If one wants to imitate the performance style of the great professional pianists of the ragtime era, then one can only use the sheet music as a starting point for creating ones own arrangement that highlights the strengths and virtuosity of the performer.

Joshua Rifkin’s approach was a perfectly valid experiment that served as a necessary corrective to the excesses and inaccuracies of the amateurish 1950s pizza parlor approach, which had run its course and had alienated the wider music-loving public. Rifkin’s interpretations may not be historically accurate,
but they are nevertheless admirable, insightful, laudable, and beautiful.

From a purely musicological standpoint, however, neither of the two approaches
"respecting the score" or "improvising upon the score" are important, and neither approach serves to distinguish between classical music and ragtime. The only important thing is the musical result. A great performaner can create a musically beautiful performance using either approach.

Still, it is the improvisational aspect and free style of ragtime as performed in the ragtime era that is one of the great joys of ragtime music. The historically accurate approach encourages the performer to improvise and embellish according to his own tastes and disposition. It demands that the performer be inventive and explore his own genius for arrangement, subtlety, and invention. In this respect, it is very much like jazz, except that ragtime will almost always be happy and joyful music. Very few rags lend themselves to the melancholy and introspective state of mind. Some would argue that pieces such as Joplin's "Solace" should not be considered ragtime. Nevertheless, the joyful nature of ragtime is a strength to be heralded and celebrated. Ragtime is neither classical music nor jazz. It is in a category all its own. Moreover, unlike the ruck of modern jazz or classical music, ragtime is fun. I would like to think that there is a place in the modern world for some joyousness, gaiety, and, reckless musical abandon.

Frederick Hodges

This essay is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission.

10 February 2009



Frederick Hodges