“Do not play this piece fast” – Scott Joplin & Ragtime

When you hear the familiar fast paced chimes of the truck, you might think, “Ice Cream!” This repetitive tune is so commonplace in the summer that even my dog recognizes the sound and runs up the driveway to get her “Frosty Paws” treat. This rendition of Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer would have driven the composer crazy.

Scott Joplin, the master composer of classic ragtime, hated when people played it fast. If you look at the sheet music for The Entertainer, it specifically says “Not Fast”. Other Joplin compositions, such as Country Club and Sugar Cane, have even more specific directions. “NOTE-Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast. Composer.” Some of his pieces, such as Pine Apple rag, even say to play the piece at a “slow march tempo” (Scott Joplin, Collected Piano Works, The New York Public Library, 1971).

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People find it irresistible to play ragtime fast. Speeding up the tempo makes it seems more current, and was used to great effect in the movie The Sting. As you can hear in the clip below, the film starts out with a mellow piano solo, more in keeping with Joplin’s preference. However, at the 49-second mark, the tempo abruptly speeds up and instruments and drums pick up the tune. Later, at 2 minutes 30 seconds, it transitions back to the piano solo. This musical lead into The Sting helped propel the film to success as it won multiple Academy Awards in 1974, including Best Picture, Best Sound, and Best Music, Scoring Original Sound Score (Oscars.org, Academy of Motion picture Arts and Sciences).

The shifting ragtime music tempo is also part of the entertainment at Walt Disney World. One of the most popular performers at the Magic Kingdom is Disney Jim. He plays for crowds at the end of Main Street. Jim incorporates tempo changes into his routine. He will start playing slowly, build to impossible speed, and then pretend to run out of energy. He will engage the crowd to help reenergize him, turning imaginary cranks to wind himself up.

Disney Jim has fun with the performance. Joplin wanted people to enjoy his music. He wrote specific notes into his music to encourage the performer to draw the audience into the music. In Rag-Time Dance, for example, he notes where to stamp your feet. “The pianist will please ‘Stamp’ the heel of one foot heavily upon the floor at the word ‘Stamp’. Do not raise the toe from the floor while stamping” (Scott Joplin, Collected Piano Works, The New York Public Library, 1971).

Scott Joplin was born in 1868, left home at age 14, and played at many saloons and places with “questionable” reputations. He published Maple Leaf Rag in 1899. It became a hit, selling 75 thousand copies in the first 6 months, and is still being published today.   At the same time, he was also working on a Ragtime Dance. This interesting piece combined different dance steps with the singer also working as the caller. This was a step on the way to his dream of a full-length opera. However, his opera was only performed once and was never published (Scott Joplin, Collected Piano Works, The New York Public Library, 1971).

Time was not kind to Scott Joplin. He died at the Manhattan State Mental Hospital on Wards Island along the East River in 1917. He predicted that, “People will begin to appreciate me 25 years after I am dead” (Newsday, page 4, August 1, 1974). Actually it took much longer than that. He was in an unmarked grave for 57 years after he died. ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) finally put a commemorative marker on the grave in 1974 (Long Island Press, page 2, August 2, 1974).

Interest in ragtime in general, and in Scott Joplin in particular, was revived after The Sting used his music in the 1970s. Joplin received the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 (Pulitzer.org, The Pulitzer Prizes).   He received a special prize for his lifetime contributions to American music. I think he would be pleased with the belated recognition, but remain disappointed that people still play his music too fast.

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