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Scott Joplin - from 'Entertainer' to cultural icon

The Entertainer
The Entertainer

Scott Joplin is a name we associate with great ragtime pieces such as the Maple Leaf Rag,' Rose Leaf Rag and The Easy Winners. None are quite so well-loved, however, as his The Entertainer. Whilst the piece serves for many as an introduction to the music of this great composer, a little dig into its history also helps us to understand Joplin's wider importance in music history.

Ragtime Innovation

The Entertainer is an example of the form known as 'ragtime.' Mostly written for piano (though widely adapted for other instruments), it is characterised by syncopated rhythms, lively melodies and often tricky 'Um-cha' left hands. The style is a fusion of different cultures—its rhythms own something to the African music, its use of march and polka-like structures to American and European music. Though Joplin was not the inventor of the style, he did much to refine and to popularise it, earning him the nickname 'King of Ragtime.'

Conversational syncopational masterpiece

The Entertainer is especially well-known for its syncopated melodies. These emphasise the off-beats, lending the music an infectious toe-tapping liveliness. The piece also has a lively sense of 'conversation' thoughout, with one short phrase being quickly answered by another. This feeling of 'call and response' may be ultimately derived from African music, where it is a very common feature. The piece has the form Intro/AA/BB/A/CC/Intro/DD, though it is very common to hear just Intro/AA/BB/A.

Slow burn...

The Entertainer was published in 1902 as both sheet music and as a piano roll for player pianos—a type of instrument which required no player, instead following instructions cut into a roll of paper. It was well-received, being described by a colleague of Joplin as 'a jingling work of a very original character.' After Joplin died in 1917, however, ragtime was superseded by jazz and the piece fell out of popularity. Two events in the 1970s led to the work, and the music of Joplin more generally, to be revived. In 1970, classical pianist Joshua Rifkin released an album entitled 'Scott Joplin: Piano Rags', which sold a million copies. Then Marvin Hamlisch's adaption of the piece for the movie 'The Sting' reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 on May 18, 1974.

The Sting Movie

...then massive success

Nowadays 'The Entertainer' is one of the most popular pieces in the world. It has featured countless times on the small screen, including in Westworld, Doctor Who, House and Malcom in the Middle and in the movies, including The Sting (1973), The Addams Family (2019) and Little England (2013). It also one of the first pieces that beginning players often aim to learn, sitting consistently in the top five most popular pieces here at 8notes.

Enduring cultural legacy

The piece itself is emblematic of Joplin's wider significance in American music. Not only did he refine and develop this important musical style but, as a composer of African heritage, he paved the way for the many artists that followed him in the field of jazz. He also was among the first African-American composers to break into the wider classical scene, writing not just ragtime pieces (themselves a blend of classical and popular elements) but also a ballet and two operas. The last of these operas, 'Treemonisha' (1911), was never fully staged in the composer's lifetime (Overture to Treemonisha can be found here) After its first full performance in 1973, the composer was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for it in 1976, finally recognising the composer's cultural significance.

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