Born in either 1867 or 1868 in Texarkana, along the border between Texas and Arkansas, Scott Joplin was to become a revolutionizing force in American music. He was the second of six children born to Florence Givens, a freeborn woman from Kentucky, and Giles Joplin, an emancipated slave from North Carolina. His mother supported her son’s early musical education after his father left the family. A German Jewish immigrant pianist—Julius Weiss—recognized Joplin’s talent, and tutored him for free (himself no stranger to racial discrimination). Years later, Joplin helped support Weiss until his old teacher’s death.
Joplin immersed himself in music. He sang, learned mandolin, guitar, cornet, and, of course, mastered the piano. He became a touring musician, arranger, and a popular composer in the emerging form of ragtime. He was to become the genre’s foremost composer with tunes like “The Entertainer,” “Solace,” and “The Maple Leaf Rag,” (the biggest-selling ragtime song in history). His compositions are now regarded as far ahead of their time, exhibiting tremendous emotional complexity.
Joplin’s ambition was to become a classical composer, but he found almost no support in this pursuit within his own lifetime. His classical music output—including a piano concerto, a symphony, and an earlier opera (The Guest of Honor)—are all lost. His piano-vocal score for Treemonisha, the opera he was working on at the end of his life and never saw performed, only survives as a self-published piano-vocal score. Joplin died penniless in New York City where he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave on April 1, 1917. He was 48.
Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha