The second biography of legendary ragtime composer Joplin to appear this year (the first was Susan Curtis's Dancing to a...


SCOTT JOPLIN: King of Ragtime

The second biography of legendary ragtime composer Joplin to appear this year (the first was Susan Curtis's Dancing to a Black Man's Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin, p. 450), written from the perspective of a musicologist. Like Curtis, Berlin (Ragtime: A Musical and Cultural History, 1980) is frustrated by the scarcity of evidence -- either oral or documentary -- that remains about Joplin's life. His whereabouts for entire years are missing, and the reasons for several key decisions that he made regarding the publication and performance of his music are shrouded in mystery. Thus, while Berlin gives a more-or-less straightforward chronological account, he is often reduced to making educated guesses. Given these drawbacks, Berlin has done a dogged job of digging up what little documentary evidence exists; he even proves that Joplin had a second wife, who died shortly after their marriage. He analyzes Joplin's musical compositions at length, in language that graduate students of musicology will enjoy (""[Joplin] had discovered the propulsive power of...goal directed voice-leading""), if not the general reader. Berlin's insights into Joplin's compositional process are enlightening; he reveals that the composer worked on paper, enabling him to create unusually complex harmonic structures. Joplin was only a mediocre pianist himself, and so rarely performed; he even had to learn to play some of his harder pieces. Berlin also goes beyond analyzing the ragtime compositions (""Maple Leaf Rag,"" ""The Entertainer"") that are most closely associated with the composer, giving balanced and generally fair accounts of Joplin's popular songs, parlor piano pieces, and his ill-fated opera, Treemonisha. The book concludes with a brief history of the ragtime revival and a complete list of Joplin's works. Together, Curtis and Berlin give about as much information as we can hope for on this important American composer. For one-stop shoppers, Berlin edges out the competition, thanks to his more thorough knowledge of music.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 1994


Page Count: 336

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1994