January 30th, 2009
“Syncopations are no indication of light or trashy music, and to shy bricks at ‘hateful ragtime’ no longer passes for musical culture,” contends Scott Joplin. Maple Leaf Rag, one of his most famous piano compositions, demonstrates the freshness of Joplin’s use of syncopations. Written in 1897, Joplin’s title honors the Maple Leaf Club, a black nightclub, in Sedalia, Missouri.
Maple Leaf Rag was one of his earliest works. The structure of the piece is a multi-strain ragtime march and includes upbeat melodies along with athletic bass lines. There are four parts with a repeating theme and a progressing bass line topped with many seventh chords. The piece is unique in that is more precisely constructed than early ragtime works, and Joplin’s use of syncopations was daringly different.
First published in September 1899 on sheet music, Maple Leaf Rag soon sold over one million copies. This was the first time an instrumental piece sold so many copies. Joplin recorded the ragtime tune on a piano roll in 1916, along with other works. The composition was popular with dance and brass bands as well. Jazz band New Orleans Rhythm Kinds adapted the tune in the 1920s, and Sidney Bechet continued its timeless legacy in the 1940s. Further, Maple Leaf Rag was heard on the big screen in the movies The Public Enemy, The Sting, and Walt Disney’s The Whoopee Party.
Maple Leaf Rag is a timeless piece. Ragtime pianists, solo artists, and bands play the popular tune in concerts. Over one century later, its welcome has not worn out yet and likely never will, as it is one of those classic musical compositions of Americana.