(* late 1867 near Texakarna, Texas, USA; † 1 April 1917, New York, USA)

Famous mainly for his ragtime compositions, Scott Joplin was the son of free-born black Florence Givins and former slave Jiles Joplin.  Growing up in Texas near the Arkansan border, there were few opportunities for education, but Scott was born into a musical family and was given the chance to play the piano from the age of seven both at a neighbour’s house and one of his mother’s clients.

Scott Joplin (portrait) Julius Weiss, a German immigrant and music teacher soon discovered Scott’s ability to improvise on spirituals, gospel hymns and dance music on the piano, and gave him free music lessons, helped by Florence’s ambition for Scott to have a good education.

His father left Florence for another woman in the 1880s, and little is known about Scott’s life until 1894, when he joined the Queen City Cornet Band, a 12 piece ensemble of African-American musicians in Sedalia, Missouri, where he played lead-cornet and formed his own dance band in the same year.

In Sedalia, Scott’s career prospered, when he started teaching piano at the George R. Smith College, where he also attended classes in composition. 1898 and 1899 marked his success in the Maple Leaf Club  and the Black 400 Club and were also when he met John Stark, who was to publish about one third of Scott Joplin’s known works.

Texarkana 1888
A map of Texarkana around 1888.

Through a clever legal coup, Joplin secured the rights to royalties to his Maple Leaf Rag, which would not only established him as the King of Rags’, but also provided him with a steady if humble income for the rest of his life.

However, Joplin’s ambition was to write for the lyric stage, and his first piece, The Ragtime Dance – a ballet for dancers and singer-narrator depicting a typical black American ball, was first performed at Wood’s Opera House in Sedalia on 24 November 1899. His next work for the stage, A Guest of Honor, was an opera about the black leader Booker T. Washington having dinner at the White House with president Roosevelt and was first performed in 1903. During the soon following tour, vital receipts and information were stolen, and the manuscript of the never published opera remains lost.

A period of ragtime melodies followed, including Cascades and Chrysanthemum until his next and last opera, Treemonisha, which began writing in 1904 after the death of his second wife, Freddie Alexander, who is also the dedicatee.

Scott Joplin (statue)
Scott Joplin Statue in the San Antonio Opera House, Texas

Having moved to New York in the hope to find a publisher for Treemonisha, Joplin completed the opera in 1910, but was unable to reach an agreement to publish the score of 250 pages.

After finally publishing the score himself in 1911, the piece received very favourable reviews in the American Musician and the Art Journal in May 1911, but – despite numerous plans to do so – was never staged in Joplin’s lifetime.

Joplin continued to write and publish music for his through his own publishing company he had formed with his third wife, Lottie Stokes. He continued composing more stage and orchestral pieces, but all of those appear to be lost or destroyed.

Joplin’s music received renewed interest in the 1970s, when many of his works were reissued and the now widely performed Treemonisha won a Pulitzer prize in 1976 and he was honoured on a postage stamp in 1983.