Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (1911), the “first” black opera. A new ethnoanthropological and musicological analysis


More than one century after its birth and its unlucky efforts to stage it properly, Scott Joplin’s complex and beautiful opera Treemonisha calls for a new, interdisciplinary critical analysis. African-American music needs to be viewed not only as a synthesis of oral and written sources, but also in light of how popular music and the mass media have influenced its development. This requires a revision of the musicological study of jazz and related genres to include ethnographic, anthropological and systematic points of view.


I wish to thank for their kind support and advice Frank Corsaro, Franz Kerschbaumer, Wolfgang Suppan and David Reffkin. Thanks also to Melinda Mele, Quirino Principe and Mitchell Feldman.

I respectfully dedicate this research to the memory of Scott Joplin, Gunther Schuller and Giorgio Gaslini.



If jazz and African-American studies are in need of a reassessment, then the study of ragtime certainly is as well. As an original American synthesis of written and oral musical traditions, ragtime is fascinating and enigmatic. It synthesized on the piano — the instrument most associated with European classical music — both American folk melodies and dance rhythms, as well as the 19th century march music, banjo performance technique and its repertoire. This synthesis, or syncretism, is also evident in Treemonisha, a “total” artistic creation based not only on aesthetic principles, but also on ethical ones. Due to economic restraints, social barriers and the public’s failure to appreciate or support his efforts as an operatic composer, Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917) not only wrote Treemonisha’s music and libretto but also conceived the choreography and the staging, published the opera in 1911 and promoted its only two documented premières in Bayonne, N.J., and New York. These premières were a failure for various reasons. But time has vindicated this beautiful and innovative work, also thanks to Vera Brodsky Lawrence’s rediscovery of the Piano and vocal score, which was reprinted in 1971 by the New York Public Library in Vol. II of The Complete Works of Scott Joplin.

Since the original arrangements written by Joplin with the assistance of his pupil and colleague Sam Patterson have been lost, the score was recreated first by Thomas Jefferson Anderson, then by William Bolcom and by Gunther Schuller. At the height of the broad international ragtime-revival of the seventies, a modern Schuller-Corsaro-Colavecchia-Jones production of Treemonisha was staged in Houston (1975) and became a true hit at the Uris Theatre on Broadway. The opera was then recorded on LP by Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft, under the musical direction of Schuller (1976), and later twice reissued on CD by the same label. Joplin, the author of million-selling piano ragtimes such as Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, was awarded in 1976 a special Pulitzer Price for Treemonisha.

At the beginning of our century, musician and scholar Rick Banjamin re-orchestrated and recorded Treemonisha (New World Records, 2011) in a totally different way, as a consequence of a new, in-depth philological approach to this composition based on the systematic study of American stage arrangements and instrumentations belonging to the 1870-1920 period. His research led to meaningful discoveries, including the identification of Treemonisha’s historical first interpreter, soprano Laura McKintosh Moss.

Until now, Treemonisha’s contemporary reception has stirred a musicological debate concerning its unusual musical nature as a “non-rag” extended-form composition. My analysis will concern itself with an examination of the opera’s libretto (which someone rated as no better than “poor” in the 1970s) from a new ethnological and anthropological perspective, and a study of its score from a musicological perspective, using the cross-currency of oral and written European and American traditions as references. And showing, for the first time, Joplin’s close relation, besides black vernacular sources, with some Romantic music and conceptions. Schuller’s and Benjamin’s re-orchestrations raise questions which are critically discussed in the last part of this work.

Treemonisha must be regarded as the “first” very meaningful black opera, though African-American composers John Thomas Douglass, Louisa Melvin Delos Mars and Harry Lawrence Freeman had already conceived black melodramas as early as 1868; Freeman, acclaimed by the press as the “Colored Wagner”, in 1910 completed The Plantation, which he described as a “Negro Grand Opera”, and later met Joplin in New York. When compared to many other American and European operas, Treemonisha’s story looks totally different, since it is not focused on the romantic relation between a man and a woman, but it describes, within a ravishing fable structure, the “political” struggle of two opponents, the evil conjurer Zodzetrick and the eighteen years old, cultivated Treemonisha, who are vying for control on a plantation slave community, “somewhere in the State of Arkansas”(1884). Also due to this too modern, “feminist”, ambitious plot, Joplin’s “racial opera” was rejected by publishers and potential stage producers, in the 1910s; but its twenty-seven melodies, its delightful ouverture, its ethnic rhythms and its powerful choral parts simply belong, today, to man’s great music, beyond any boundary and any classification.


Voodoo, Trees, Germans and Freud: the international saga of Treemonisha

The respected American anthropologist Melville Jean Herskovits (1895-1963), a student of the Euro-American school of Franz Boas, founded an ambitious African studies research program at Northwestern University, Illinois, in the 1920s.

His groundbreaking research, which he published-among other books- in his landmark essay The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), introduced the concepts of “acculturation”, “inculturation” and “cultural relativism”. Through his extensive study of Afro-American, Afro-Caribbean and African cultures in the U.S., Surinam, Haiti, Trinidad, Brazil and Dahomey, Herskovits proved, through the effective use of field research, the existence and persistence in contemporary American society of what he called “African retentions”. His seminal investigations always referred to music, which he often recorded while researching in the field, several examples of which are still available in the Folkways Records catalogue (Smithsonian Institution). Herskovits’ interest in the arts is a recurring theme in his work and his ongoing interest in music as a lively feature of all cultures partly derives from his friendship and apprenticeship with one of the founding members of ethnomusicology, the Austrian scholar Eric Moritz von Hornbostel. Von Hornbostel was one of the first Europeans to study African and Afro-American music, as was the French scholar André Schaeffner, who developed a particular interest in African music during the course of his career. After devoting two articles (1926 and 1927) to American Negro songs and to the ethnological elements of jazz, von Hornbostel specifically mentioned ragtime in a paper printed in 1928 in the first issue the magazine Africa, calling it “a new music in cultural history”; however, these two papers remained isolated examples of musicological scholarship for several decades.

African music, ragtime, jazz and other Afro-American musical hybrids began attracting renewed interest in the U.S. and in Europe after World War II, and especially since the 1960s. Ragtime was born during the last two decades of the 19th century — as, incidentally, were modem anthropology, musicology and comparative musicology — but disappeared with the death of Joplin in 1917, a mere six years after Treemonisha was published and after the opera’s unsuccessful theatrical premiere in New York. Of course, 1917 is also the year historically associated with the “birth” of jazz, coinciding as it does with the release by the Victor Company of the world’s first commercially available jazz recordings, the performances of Livery Stable Blues and Dixieland Jass Band One-Step by The Original Dixieland Jass Band.

Herskovits’ concept of “African retention” is an ideal tool to use in our investigation of Treemonisha’s cultural sources as we try to determine whether there are any African elements — or “European” and “American” ones for that matter — in this uncommonly beautiful musical drama. At the beginning of the 20th century, interest in African culture was strong both in Europe and in the U.S. While Paris was celebrating African painting and sculpture, Germany — after Leo Frobenius’ pioneering artistic and philosophic research — sent the first interdisciplinary investigative group of cultural missionaries to Togo in 1902. This team included a musicologist and a number of researchers in both the field of linguistics and in a new discipline called “psychology”. The now famous “down-beat rhythmical controversy” was one of the results of that field research, as were groundbreaking observations about the relationship between sight and sound and about bodily “motor behavior”. In addition, a consciousness and curiosity about African roots was emerging among Afro-Americans, as shown, among other facts, by the composition in 1903 of the forgotten opera Africa. This was a one-act opera performed as a closing piece by Mahara’s Minstrels, a popular white-owned company of black performing artists. As Edward Berlin points out in his essay “On the Trail of A Guest of Honor. In Search of Scott Joplin’s Lost Opera” (in Crawford, Lott, Oja, eds., 1990: 64-65), an advertisement mentioning A Guest of Honor appears in the Nebraska newspaper Beatrice Daily Sun (October 13th 1903). In a front page review of the minstrel show on October 16th 1903, one sentence apparently refers to the opera: “The after piece was musical and funny and the audience went home in the best of Inn/lour”. As we can surmise from these few remarks, Africa must have ranked among the category of 19th-century minstrelsy and vaudeville comedies and songs, regularly dealing with a caricature portrayal of the Afro-American people, even when black people themselves wrote the music and lyrics and (or) performed.

It was precisely this kind of thing that Joplin, a talented pianist and composer, wanted to eradicate and eliminate. One of six sons of a free woman and a former slave, he struggled in a racist society to establish himself and his music throughout his life. His parents, from Kentucky and North Carolina, had settled around a small town called Texarkana at the junction of the borders of Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana attracted by the opportunity of railroad work. The family was a musical one as both his parents played instruments: his father, a former slave who then started working for the Texas and Pacific railroad, played the violin, and his mother, a domestic servant, played the banjo and sang. Joplin started playing piano as a child, encouraged first by his mother, then by his neighbors (the Cook family) and finally by teachers Mag Washington and John Charles Johnson. He attended Central High School and was a devoted member of the black Baptist Church, while ring-shouts and banjo playing, work songs and blues songs increasingly became a vital part of his oral musical experience.

By the turn of the 20th century, Joplin had already established an excellent reputation for himself as the “Ragtime King”. In fact, he was the most accomplished and successful composer of this surprising new music which synthesized the Romantic piano styles of Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann with Afro-American polyrhythms, Anglo-American folk traditions, spiritual songs, secular dances, marches and vaudeville numbers. Joplin disliked performing and did not enjoy the world of entertainment in clubs and saloons that he had gotten his full of during his twenties as a member, with his brothers, of the Texas Medley Quartet and later as an itinerant solo pianist. The author of Original Rags (1899), Maple Leaf Rag (1899), Peacherine Rag (1901), The Entertainer (1902) and other catchy popular tunes, Joplin was able to earn a living as a composer and music teacher rather than as a performer, because his skills as a performer were unexceptional. According to David A. Jasen and Trebor J. Tichenor (1978: 85-86), “the original impetus toward composition away from the piano stemmed from the fact that Joplin was not a good performer”, while Sam Patterson, a friend and colleague of Joplin’s, stated that “after all, Joplin never played well”.

Joplin, who possessed aristocratic manners and the unusual characteristic of being relatively indifferent to success, formed a strong and profitable relationship with John Stark, a publisher from Sedalia, Missouri. Joplin’s talent for writing short compositions (which all piano rags were) quickly evolved, at the beginning of the century, into an interest in creating more extended musical forms for both the theatre and the ballet (as opposed to more popular dance forms). In fact, he felt irresistibly attracted by European written music. As James Haskins and Kathleen Benson point out in their Joplin biography (1979: 112), this was certainly a result of Joplin’s meeting, in late 1900 or early 1901, Alfred Ernst, a German music teacher who would change the future course of his life. The influence of a German music teacher[1] is a sort of leitmotif in the lives of innumerable American musicians, from Benny Goodman (with Franz Schoepp) to Thomas “Fats” Waller (with Carl Bohm) and Antonio Carlos Jobim (with Hans Joachim Koellreutter), but in Joplin’s case the impact of European (and, particularly, German) musical literature led to a change in his creativity. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published on February 28th 1901 an article entitled “To Play Ragtime in Europe”, which read:

Director Alfred Ernst of the St. Louis Choral Symphony Society believes that he has discovered, in Scott Joplin of Sedalia, a Negro, an extraordinary genius as a composer of ragtime music. So deeply is Mr. Ernst impressed with the ability of the Sedalian that he intends to take with him to Germany next summer copies of Joplin’s work, with a view to educating the dignified disciples of Wagner, Liszt, Mendelsohn and other European masters of music into an appreciation of the real American ragtime melodies. It is possible that the colored man may accompany the distinguished conductor. When he returns from the storied Rhine Mr. Ernst will take Joplin under his care and instruct him in the theory and harmony of music. Joplin has published two ragtime pieces, Maple Leaf Rag and Swipesy Cake Walk which will be introduced in Germany by the St. Louis musician.”

“I am deeply interested in this man” said Mr. Ernst to the Post Dispatch. “He is young and undoubtedly has a fine future. With proper cultivation, I believe, his talent will develop into positive genius. Being of African blood himself, Joplin has a keener insight into that peculiar branch of melody than white composers. His ear is particularly acute. Recently I played for him portions of Tannhauser. He was enraptured. I could see that he comprehended and appreciated this class of music. It was the opening of a new world to him, and I believe he felt as Keats felt when he first read Chapman’s Homer. The work Joplin has done in ragtime is so original, so distinctly individual, and so melodious, that I am led to believe he can do something fine in compositions of a higher class when he shall have been instructed in theory and harmony. Joplin’s work, as yet, has a certain crudeness, due to his lack of musical concatenation, but it shows that the soul of the composer is there and needs but to be set free by knowledge of technique. He is an unusually intelligent young man and fairly well educated. Joplin is known in Sedalia as “The Ragtime King”. A trip to Europe in company of Prof. Ernst is the dream of his life. It may be realized”.

Joplin did not travel to Europe, but the impact of European culture on his taste and professional skills enhanced his interest and his need to express himself creatively in broader forms and in a more subjective manner. The turn of the century thus coincided with a turning point in Joplin’s approach to composition. Ragtime had erupted suddenly in the U.S. as a piano and banjo (and orchestral, march-like) music, achieving in a few years a spectacular and unexpected level of popular success. This was almost totally the result of the unprecedented favorable response the public had to such Joplin tunes as The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag (it is said that more than a million copies of the piano sheet music to Maple Leaf Rag published by John Stark were sold!). Joplin’s impact on the popular music scene was part of a broader “ragtime craze” that began in rural Mississippi and Missouri, moved on to Chicago and St. Louis and ultimately arrived in New York[2]. There the raw, pure, often folk-oriented, melodic nature of the early rags was transformed into a commercially oriented music by the rapidly expanding entertainment and music publishing industries. Devoted to his art form, Joplin dedicated the last period of his professional activity to creating extended works for dance and opera, although his ambition was pressured by the economic necessity of writing shorter songs. This dilemma was shared by George Gershwin, who continued writing hit Broadway show-tunes despite having created an artistic masterpiece of the magnitude of Porgy and Bess. Joplin’s colleague Monroe H. Rosenfeld, a white Tin Pan Alley composer, wrote an article dedicated to Joplin which appeared in the June 7th 1907 issue of the St. Louis Democrat. Here Rosenfeld first praised Joplin as the “king of ragtime writers” and then described his forthcoming expectations: “Joplin’s ambition is to shine in other spheres. He affirms that it is a pastime for him to compose syncopated music and he longs for more arduous work. To this end he is assiduously toiling upon an opera, nearly a score of the numbers of which he has already composed and which he hopes to give an early production [in] this city”. As early as 1899, when Maple Leaf Rag had not yet provided him with national fame, the pianist and composer had already staged The Ragtime Dance, a folk ballet for singer and dancers at Wood’s Opera House in Sedalia, Missouri. By the time of his death in 1917, Joplin had also written two works that have been subsequently lost, the musical comedy called If (unperformed) and a vaudeville called Syncopated Jamboree, which an article in the Indianapolis Freeman reported to be in rehearsal in 1915. According to Joplin’s biographer Edward A. Berlin (Berlin 2016:302), the composer was also busy at work on another ambitious project, Symphony n.1.

The Ragtime Dance became the basis of a quarrel between Joplin and his publisher Stark. The piece was selling poorly and Stark considered it unwise to publish A Guest of Honor, the two-act opera Joplin was working on during the first years of the century, the period of Joplin’s musical and cultural relationship with Alfred Ernst. The Ragtime Dance, published by Stark in 1900, contains the words “coon”, “razor fight” and “dark town” and other lyrics referring to black people in a manner typical of the parodies characteristic of 19th-century minstrelsy. But the verse, as Haskins and Benson (1979: 126) point out, “is not a denial of folkways but a presentation of them in a sympathetic, joyful light”. Here is the text of the two verses:


Let me see you do the “rag time dance”

Turn left and do the “cake walk prance”

Turn the other way and do the “slow drag”


Now take your lady to the World’s Fair

And do the “rag time dance”


Let me see you do the “clean up dance”

Now you do the “Jennie Cooler dance”

Turn the other way and do the “slow drag”


Now take your lady to the World’s Fair

And to the “rag time dance”


The musical part fitting the verse was republished — omitting the rest of the composition — in 1906, again by Stark, bearing the subtitle A Stop-Time Two Step (Collected Piano Works, Vol.1: 152). It includes an interesting footnote by the author, suggesting that “To get the desired effect of ‘stop time’, 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”. This footnote is one of the many contradictory signs that appear in Joplin’s music, which contrast ragtime’s European harmonic and melodic roots by providing rhythmic evidence of its ethnomusical and dance-like link with African and Afro-American folks styles.

Stamping or stomping the foot is a clear African retention. It serves as rhythmic marker of dance patterns and survived in the 19th-century music traditions of the South, being then transmitted to early jazz (e.g. the titles to New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton’s 1926 classic Black Bottom Stomp or the 1930s big band hit Stompin’ at the Savoy). The term “slow drag”, which Joplin often used in Treemonisha (the final number of the opera, for example, is entitled A Real Slow Drag), recurs in the second verse of The Ragtime Dance, printed above:


SCOTT JOPLIN, Rag-Time Dance, in Collected Piano Works: Rags, Waltzes, Marches, ed. by Vera Brodsky Lawrence, The New York Library, New York 1971/R1981, p.154


Musical example n.1


Joplin took the choreographic impetus implicit in The Ragtime Dance a step further as he made plans to stage his first opera, now lost, called A Guest of Honor. A link between the two compositions is also represented by the fact that the composer formed a Scott Joplin Drama Company to stage The Ragtime Dance and the same company was hired with the intention of performing A Guest of Honor. Joplin envisioned a première in St. Louis and then (according to Edward Berlin’s reconstruction of its story), a tour that would stop Galesburg (Illinois), Webb city (Missouri), Pittsburgh and Parsons (Kansas), Ottumwa and Cedar Rapids (Iowa), Beatrice and Fremont (Nebraska), and finally Mason City (Iowa). Newspaper articles and correspondence inform us that the company had about 30 members. The opera’s musical numbers, according to the research of sheet-music collector Michael Montgomery, include the pieces Sundown Rug, Molasses Drag, Blue Note Rag, Missouri Call, Queen City Rag, Freedom’s Etude, Butler’s Drag, Jubilee Rag, Reception Rag, Guest of Honor, State Fair Rag and Elijah’s Drag.

The latter’s title could have been inspired by Felix Mendelsohn Bartholdy’s Elijah, which had been staged in the U.S. for the first time by the Händel and Haydn Society in Boston in 1856, along with Händel’s Messiah and Haydn’s The Seasons. (This, incidentally, was the very first music festival to be held in North America.)

By the mid-19th-century, opera had begun to spread across the U.S. along with the 19th-century “classical” music, and soon American composers started to be drawn to the complexity and fascination of musical drama. Among the first North American operas are those by William Henry Fry (1813-1864), who studied composition in Philadelphia with Leopold Meignen, Georg Frederick Bristow (1825-1898), Walter Damrosch (1862-1950) and Horatio Parker (1863-1919). While Fry was a fan of Italian opera — as reflected by the echoes of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti in his musical drama Leonora (1845) — the other composers either seemed attracted by the German tradition —which was certainly the case of Damrosch, who was born in Europe — or were able to find inspiration for their librettos in North American literature. Bristow wrote Rip Van Winkle (1855), after Washington Irving’s famous story, while Damrosch composed The Scarlet Letter (1850), based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s equally successful novel.

Parallel to the development of opera in the USA and of a North American school of operatic composers was the different but equally popular tradition of minstrelsy and vaudeville. As Eileen Southern points out (1971/R1997: 89):

Black-face minstrelsy was a form of theatrical performance that emerged during the 1820s and reached its zenith during the years 1850-1870. Essentially it consisted of an exploitation of the slave’s style of music and dancing by white men, who blackened their faces with burnt cork and went on to sing ‘Negro songs’ (also called ‘Ethiopian songs’), to perform dances derived from those of the slaves, and to tell jokes based on the slave life. Two basic types of slave interpretations were developed: one in caricature on the plantation slave with his ragged clothes and thick dialect; the other portraying the city slave, the dandy dressed in the latest fashion, who boasted of his exploits among the ladies. The former slave was referred to as Jim Crow and the latter as Zip Coon.

The emancipation that followed abolition of slavery after the Civil War allowed blacks to form their own troupes, the first example of which were the pioneering Georgia Minstrels. The first permanent minstrel group was organized in 1869 in St. Louis by Lew Johnson, a black showman who was regarded by his contemporaries as the most successful manager of that era. Minstrelsy became a way of life for many black entertainers after the war. In 1890 a federal census counted nearly 1,500 black actors, musicians and showmen and this figure did not include part-time minstrels. One of the most famous among them would be William Christopher Handy (1873 – 1958), composer of St. Louis Blues. Others included James Bland (1854 – 1911) and Sam Lucas (1840 – 1916), one of the most popular minstrels in the U.S.. A guitar player, Lucas performed with the most important troupes, then with touring plays and concert companies and finally in vaudeville acts and musical comedies. In 1878 he was the first black man to interpret the role of Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a play based on the celebrated novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Finally, a popular white composer who wrote a considerable number of songs for minstrelsy and vaudeville was the Irish-American Stephen Foster (1826 – 1864), considered the finest American songwriter of the 19th century and the author of such songs as Old Uncle Ned and Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races, My Old Kentucky Home, Old Folks at Home, Old Black Joe, Massa’s in the Cold, Cold Ground.[3]

Treemonisha must be regarded as an opera inspired both by the Western European “art” music tradition and the African-American forms of stage entertainment. William Schafer and Johannes Riedel’s state, in their remarkable essay The Art of Ragtime (1973/R1977: 205) that “integration of music, drama and dance gives this opera its obvious quality of Arnericaness, since it borrows this concept of integration of the arts from the world of American minstrelsy and vaudeville, not from the Gesamtkunstwerk“.  But Wagner’s epic concept of musical drama might have equally served as Joplin’s model. As mentioned earlier, in addition to composing the music and writing its libretto, Joplin also conceived the choreography, the scenery, the costumes and finally published and staged Treemonisha himself. A formula one could use to define some of the essential traits of Treemonisha would be to superimpose Wagner’s ideas to the American minstrelsy and vaudeville traditions. In anthropological terms, it recalls Herskovits’ concept of “reinterpretation” (Herskovits 1948: 248). In terms of an anthropology of music this means that — as in the case of most Afro-American music — black people have borrowed from white culture traits and signs that are similar to their tradition, even if they relate to different social functions (this is certainly the case between minstrelsy and vaudeville on the one hand and Wagner’s music drama on the other!). An extension of this argument leads to the conclusion that the African sources of Afro-American vaudeville and the Greco-Mediterranean sources of Wagner’s philosophy of music drama share a holistic viewpoint typical of all ancient cultures, which can be geographically isolated as having originated in ancient Mesopotamian civilization, the root of both African and European cultures. This theory was actually put forward by Peter van der Merwe in his remarkable and somewhat revolutionary essay Origins of the Popular Style (1989/R1992) in which he concludes that “parlor” and “serious” music are not mutually exclusive, radically separate entities. This perfectly suits the possible vaudeville-versus-Wagner relationship in any discussion about Treemonisha. But it is unquestionable that Treemonisha is an opera, since it features an overture, recitatives, arias, and a chorus, and it’s devided in three acts. Though the manuscript has been lost and we have to infer from secondary sources rather than from the music, Schafer and Riedel’s remarks on Joplin’s connection with vaudeville and minstrelsy may be better suited to a discussion of A Guest of Honor than of Treemonisha. As Berlin suggests in his quoted article “On the Trail of A Guest of Honor“, this opera was meant to be performed in different cities from September to October 1903. In some cities it was announced that Joplin would perform either with Ragtime Minstrels or with his Joplin Minstrels; in others he was billed as appearing with his Ragtime Opera “Does this change— Berlin writes (in Crawford, Lott, Oja, eds., 1990: 59) “indicate that Joplin failed to find an audience for his opera and was trying to recoup losses with a more popular and acceptable form? Or does it simply reflect a refusal on the part of the theater management in Pittsburgh to book an opera, especially one by a black company?”. However, things actually went, it is apparent that racism and social denigration of black culture in the U.S. made it very difficult for any Afro-American to produce a project as ambitious as a serious music drama. Remember, the U.S. was a country that had only abolished slavery in 1865 and was still strongly discriminating against black people. In addition, the nation was also just beginning — in the musical and general cultural domain — to free itself from European models, as the content of the first white American operas by Fry, Damrosch, Bristow and Parker mentioned above clearly reveal. Joplin’s entire professional life can thus be seen as a progressive effort to overcome the social and cultural limitations and restrictions of his lifetime, and the tremendous and courageous effort he made in Connection with Treemonisha is a final, powerful — albeit futile – act of his entire, remarkable career.

Of course it all started with the piano, an instrument whose relationship to Afro-American music is far more complex than existing musicological investigations have so far revealed. This “prince of European instruments” was instantly and widely accepted throughout the U.S. in the 19th century, and its use spread not only to cities, but to small towns and villages as well; of course the further pianists were from music schools and teachers, the more likely they were to display a folk-like, self-taught style. At one extreme one found the parlor musician, a serious, cultivated bourgeois performer in the purest Romantic (i.e. predominantly German, Polish and French) tradition, to which a developing North American tradition would soon add its first composers. On the other was the entertainer, a more folk-like performer. As Jasen and Tichenor point out in Rags and Ragtime (1978):

Ragtime’s pre-sheet music origins […] were lost in an undocumented lower-class tradition of saloon and whorehouse piano playing, a tradition comprised of talented freelance itinerants. Because the 19th century saloon was invariably equipped with a piano, it offered ready employment to any roving pianist who could entertain the all-male saloon patrons of the times. Hence the saloon became ragtime’s earliest performance venue. The typical saloon pianist was hired to provide a pleasant, nondescript background diversion and was expected to honor requests. It is inconceivable that any of these musicians were restricted to a ragtime repertoire; this would have been a professional suicide. In reality, such now celebrated “ragtime pianists” as Eubie Blake were all-purpose entertainers. They are not remembered as such now, not because ragtime was their only performing vehicle, but because their other period pieces were less interesting to modern listeners. By the same token, few early composers worked strictly within a ragtime format.

Regardless of whether its keyboard was used to interpret cultured, composed works or aurally transmitted folk music, the piano functioned as the vast repository of a variety of musical sources.

In addition to ragtime, the repertoire of that era included a mixture of Irish, Scottish and English folk tunes, Anglo-American and Afro-American dances (i.e. jigs, cakewalks and clogs), the blues and spirituals, banjo music, songs from minstrel shows and other genres. Another major stylistic influence on ragtime is the march, which exploded in popularity in the U.S. during the second half of the 19th century. Following a structural principle established in marches, ragtime compositions were invariably created according to an additive process in most — which several complete, independent 16-measure sections (each referred to as a “theme” or “strain, ) are joined without transitional connections[4].

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), a New Orleans native described as “English speaking with a French accent”, was a true keyboard virtuoso and a versatile composer. A tireless musical explorer, he can conceivably be identified as a link between the 19th century musical syncretism of the folk and romantic styles and the ragtime era.

His works resonated with elements of banjo music (e.g. his composition The Banjo Op. 15) and also with Latin-American rhythms and melodies (e.g. La Bamboula, Le Bananier, Ojos Criollos, Souvenir de la Havane). These latter pieces certainly paved the way for the Joplin composition Solace. A Mexican Serenate (1899), based on a tango rhythm. A printed collection of Gottschalk’s music (Arno Press) was assembled by Vera Brodsky Lawrence, who also collected and published Joplin’s compositions, including Treemonisha. Joplin’s attitudes towards music in general and the piano in particular definitely tended to stress the refined, cultured milieu as opposed to the folk or popular approach. His commitment to composing, teaching and sharing his knowledge with his pupils, friends and others — aided by the publication of his ragtime “instruction manual” A School of Ragtime. Six Exercises for the Piano (Stark, 1908) — was unique among his contemporaries as was his ambitious campaign to be a composer of ballets and operas. Joplin’s efforts were aided in part by the fact that the black community was growing in size and importance in major American cities including New York, which would host, in the last decades of the 19th century, the very first black musical comedies: Will Marion Cook’s Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk (with lyrics by Paul Lawrence Dunbar) and Bill Cole’s A Trip To Coontown. Cook, incidentally, was educated at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory in the U.S. and then studied in Berlin before returning to America, where he studied composition with Antonin Dvořák (who actually preferred Harry T. Burleigh, future spirituals specialist, to Cook). At the same time as the birth of black musicals, black singers were also turning to opera, as exemplified by Sissieretta Jones, who billed herself as Black Patti after the success in the U.S. of the Italian singer Adelina Patti. There was also the black singer Theodore Drury, who formed a black troupe in 1903 to perform Carmen, Aida, Faust and other operas at New York City’s Lexington Avenue Opera House.

African-American musicians approached the world of European “opera”- something would have gained them an unprecedented social consideration and uplift-both from the point of view of the interpretation and the composition. Interpretation, especially vocal, was an easier task, and was encouraged by white American music teachers in schools, conservatories and even universities; some of them, including Dvořák, believed that African-American singers, properly trained in classical terms, could also covey in their styles black vernacular styles. But, though music schools opened to an African-American attendance, most black singers mainly developed their training within church activities.

In any case, in the 1910s Scott Joplin felt the time was somehow ripe for an enterprise such as Treemonisha, although the idea of an Afro-American operatic composer appealed neither to Stark — who had already refused to publish A Guest of Honor — nor to New York’s promoters or audiences. We may assume that the idea of a black opera by a black composer — even someone as gifted as the talented pianist from Texarkana — might even have sounded strange to the black community itself. In any case, the idea of an opera written by a black musician was “in the air” at the end of the nineteenth century, also due to the exposure of African-American musicians to the classical music network (theatres, orchestras, choral associations) developed in the USA by German immigrants, which offered on regular bases programs including instrumental, vocal and theatrical compositions by leading composers of that time. A black musician from Cleveland, Ohio, Harry Lawrence Freeman (1869-1954) began composing his own music at the age of eighteen, after attending a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannheuser. Freeman, in 1911, founded the Freeman Opera Company in Denver, Colorado, and subsequently composed two “black” operas, Epithalia (1891) and The Martyr (1893), the first of which was performed at the Deutsches Theater in Denver. Freeman would then become the Director of music studies at Wilberforce University (1902-1903). He finally moved to New York, where he met Joplin in 1912, though no details survive of their acquaintance. In addition to grand opera, Freeman wrote stage music and served as musical director for vaudeville and musical theatre companies, including Cole and Johnson’s, John Larkin’s and Ernest Hogan’s.

John Stark, who truly helped Joplin’s career and made a fortune for the composer (as well as himself) through the sales of Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer, was the main but certainly not the only editorial representative of Joplin’s music. In fact, Joplin had 21 publishers. After Stark moved his offices from St. Louis to 127 East 23rd Street in Manhattan, Joplin — who had always tried to live near his publisher since his Texarkana days, moving first to Sedalia and then to St. Louis — himself planned a move to New York. According to Joplin’s brother, the composer had returned to Texarkana in 1907 and in the same year possibly went to Germany. Fred Joplin’s recollections are quoted in Haskins and Benson’s biography (1979: 151): “He was playing somewhere, and a German got in with him and when [the German] went back to Germany, he carried Scott back with him […] So he went over there, and I don’t know how long he stayed. But when he did come back, he had played so much and wrote a lot of music and he had started his fame”. When Joplin settled in New York later in 1907, it was near the end of the 20-year period from 1890 and 1910, during which the city’s black population nearly tripled. The borough of Manhattan, which includes Harlem, received people who moved there mainly from the Southern coastal states (summing up to nearly one hundred thousand), a phenomenon Gershwin dramatized in his opera Porgy and Bess.

In 1908, Joplin was hard at work on his second opera, part of which had already been written while he was still living in St. Louis. Pianist Joseph Lamb, one of the many musicians he had come in contact with and become friends with over the years, recalled that Joplin played some of the music for him in New York in 1908 and told him about his dream of producing the work which he called a folk opera. An article from the New York newspaper Age on March 5th 1908 entitled “Composer of Ragtime Now Writing Opera” stated:

Since syncopated music, better known as ragtime, has been in vogue, many Negro writers have gained considerable fame as composers of that style of music. From the white man’s point of view he at present is inclined to believe that after writing ragtime the Negro does not figure. There are many colored writers busily engaged even now in writing operas. Music circles have been stirred recently by the announcement that Scott Joplin, known as the apostle of ragtime, is composing scores for grand opera. Scott Joplin is a St. Louis product who gained prominence a few years ago writing The Maple Leaf Rag, which was the first instrumental piece to be generally accepted by the public. Last summer he came to New York from St. Louis and it was the opinion of all that his mission was one of placing several of his ragtime compositions on the market. The surprise of the musicians and the publishers can be imagined when Joplin announced that he was writing grand opera and expected to have his scores finished by summer. From ragtime to grand opera is certainly a big jump — about as great as jump from the American Theatre to the Manhattan and Metropolitan Opera Houses”.

Business was booming for Tin Pan Alley’s commercially oriented music publishers[5]. They transformed ragtime into a generic musical style but its very popularity — among with other factors —led to the beginning of its decline within the same year as its success. After having broken with Stark who, despite their disagreements, was his most consistent and favorite publisher, Joplin signed with the Seminary Music Company. The six short piano pieces by the composer they published did not sell well and Joplin let the contract expire. His New York years were difficult. Unable to survive solely on publishing royalties, Joplin was forced to play piano, teach music and tour. He did, however, publish two of his finest short compositions — Pineapple Rag and Stoptime Rag — in 1910 while working diligently on his second opera project. Still, the idea of an opera by a black composer seemed risky and too advanced concept for New York’s commercially oriented publishers to accept. This became a determining factor in Joplin’s decision to establish his own company, the Scott Joplin Publishing Company, New York City, N.Y., which printed 230 pages (with 27 musical numbers) of a three-act opera called Treemonisha in May 1911. It costed him quite a lot, a sum that Edward A. Berlin quantifies, in current value, in around 50.000 dollars (note). Afterwards, Joplin published as sheet music revised versions of three of the opera’s numbers, Frolic of the Bears, A Real Slow Drag and Prelude to Act III, while trying to organize, besides others, a stage production of the work in Atlanta, and succeeding in having two or more stage productions in Washington Park, Bajonne, N.J. Subsequently, Benjamin Nibur, manager of the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, announced that Treemonisha would be produced that autumn, with a cast of forty voices and an orchestra of twenty-five musicians. The Lafayette, Harlem’s newest and best theatre, could accommodate about 2,000 people and had recently changed from a discriminating, racist admissions policy to one featuring black entertainment, a business decision clearly motivated by the rapidly growing Afro-American population in that part of New York City. Treemonisha was expected to be one of the very first black shows at the theatre but this was the beginning of an era when musical comedy would become a popular fad with the public. So, as the result of a change in management, Treemonisha was replaced by other productions which the venue’s new directors, the Coleman Brothers, preferred. Joplin, whose hopes had been raised, was devastated and eventually decided to stage the opera at his own expense, which he did without any success in 1915 at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem. He rented the hall and, with the assistance of his friend and protégé Sam Patterson, mounted a scaled-back production of Treemonisha. The mostly-black audience probably disliked the “historical” and “folk-like” nature of the libretto or, perhaps, the social and cultural implications of the plot. Joplin did, however, received a particularly favorable review of Treemonisha in its published form in The American Musician on June 24th, 1911.

[…] In literary productivity the colored man has not yet made himself very prominent. The works of Booker T. Washington and Lawrence Dunbar, however, are good examples of the products of the Negro mind. In other departments of art, the Negro has heretofore practically achieved nothing, although his proclivity toward music is universally recognized. It is therefore an occasion for wonderment as well as for admiration when a work of undeniable merit has been wrought by one of this race.

Scott Joplin, well known as a writer of music, and especially of what a certain musician classified as “classic ragtime”, has just published an opera in three acts, entitled Treemonisha, upon which he has been working for the past fifteen years. This achievement is noteworthy for two reasons: first, it is composed by a Negro, and second, the subject deals with an important phase of Negro life […] A remarkable point about this work is its evident desire to serve the Negro race by exposing two of the great evils which have held this people in its grasp, as well as to point to higher and nobler ideals. Scott Joplin has proved himself a teacher as well as a scholar and an optimist with a mission which has been splendidly performed. Moreover, he has created an entirely new phase of musical art and has produced a thoroughly American opera, dealing with a typical American subject, yet free from all extraneous influence. He has discovered something new because he had confidence in himself and in his mission.

Scott Joplin has not been influenced by his musical studies or by foreign schools. He has created an original type of music in which he employs syncopation in a most artistic and original manner. It is in no sense rag-time, but of that peculiar quality of rhythm which Dvořák used so successfully in the New World Symphony. The composer has constantly kept in mind his characters and their purpose, and has written music in keeping with his libretto. Treemonisha is not a grand opera, and is not a light opera; it is what we might call character opera or racial opera. The music is particularly suitable to the individuals concern, and the ensembles are noteworthy examples of artistic conceptions which conform to the character of the work […] It is always a pleasure to meet with something new in music. In many years that we have been associated with printed musical pages, this is the first instance we have observed some wholly strange notations. This composer has employed a unique method of notating women crying and calls.

There has been much written and printed about American opera, and the American composers have seized the opportunity of acquainting the world with the fact that they have been able to produce works in this line […] Now the […] question is, are the American composers endeavoring to create a school of American opera, or are they simply employing their talents to fashion something suitable for the operatic stage and satisfactory to the operatic management? If so, American opera will always remain a thing in embryo. To date there is no record of even the slightest tendency toward the fashioning of the real American opera, and although this work just completed by one of the Ethiopian race will hardly be accepted as a typical American opera for obvious reasons, nevertheless none can deny that it serves as an opening wedge, since it is in every respect indigenous. It has sprung from our soil practically of its own accord. Its composer has focused his mind upon a single object, and with a nature wholly in sympathy with it has hewn an entirely new form of operatic art. Its production would prove an interesting and potent achievement, and it is to be hoped that sooner or later it will be thus honored.

This article raises two concerns, the first being that the reviewer was only partially aware of Afro-American literature written before Washington and Dunbar. Interesting works by Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon, Olaudah Equiano (the now famous Interesting Narrative Life of Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself ) and George Moses Horton had already been created during the colonial period. In addition, the Civil War era produced works by William Wells Brown, Harriet Wilson, James Monroe Whitefield and Frederick Douglass, and after the North-South conflict Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Pauline Hopkins and Charles Chestnutt and others contributed valuable works to this expanding literary tradition. The other concern involves Joplin’s cultural background. Haskins and Benson’s biography reports that, when the composer died, people found among his personal effects books concerning counterpoint and other aspects of music theory. Yet what about his readings in other fields, beginning with literature itself? We know for a fact that as a child Joplin read Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, but what else did he read? Biographies and essays offer no information on this point, although much can be inferred from Treemonisha’s libretto, as the following story which Joplin printed as a preface to the music and the text in the 1911 edition reveals.

The scene of the opera is laid on a plantation somewhere in the state of Arkansas, North-east of the town of Texarkana and three or four miles from the Red River. The plantation being surrounded by a dense forest. There were several Negro families living on the plantation and other families back in the woods. In order to better comprehend the story, I will give a few details regarding the Negroes of this plantation from the year 1866 to the year 1884.

The year 1866 finds them in dense ignorance, with no-one to guide them, as the white folks had moved away shortly after the Negroes were set free and had left the plantation in charge of a trustworthy Negro servant named Ned. All of the Negroes, but Ned and his wife Monisha, were superstitious, and believed in conjuring. Monisha, being a woman, was at times impressed by what the more expert conjurers would say. Ned and Monisha had no children, and they had often prayed that their cabin home might one day be brightened by a child that would be a companion for Monisha when Ned was away from home. They had dreams, too, of educating the child so that when it grew up it could teach the people around them to aspire to something better and higher than superstition and conjuring.

The prayers of Ned and Monisha were answered in a remarkable manner. One morning in the middle of September 1866, Monisha found a baby under a tree that grew in front of her cabin. It proved to be a light-brown-skinned girl about two days old. Monisha took the baby into the cabin, and Ned and she adopted her as their own. They wanted the child, while growing up, to love them as it would have loved its real parents, so they decided to keep it in ignorance of the manner in which it came to them until old enough to understand. They realized, too, that if the neighbors knew the facts, they would some day tell the child, so, to deceive them, Ned hitched up his mules and, with Monisha and the child, drove over to a family of old friends who lived twenty miles away and whom they had not seen for three years. They told their friends that the child was just a week old.

Ned gave these people six bushels of corn and forty pounds of meat to allow Monisha and the child to stay with them for eight weeks, which Ned thought would benefit the health of Monisha. The friends willingly consented to have her stay with them for that length of time. Ned went back alone to the plantation and told his old neighbors that Monisha, while visiting some old friends, had become mother of a girl baby. The neighbors were of course greatly surprised but were compelled to believe that Ned’s story was true. At the end of eight weeks Ned took Monisha and the child home and received the congratulations of his neighbors and friends and was delighted to find that his scheme had worked so well. Monisha, at first, gave her child her own name; but, when the child was three years old she was so fond of playing under the tree where she was found that Monisha gave her the name of Tree-Monisha.

When Treemonisha was seven years old Monisha arranged with a white family that she would do their washing and ironing and Ned would chop their wood if the lady of the house would give Treemonisha an education, the school-house being too far away for the child to attend. The lady consented and as a result Treemonisha was the only educated person in the neighborhood, the other children being still in ignorance on account of their inability to travel so far to school […]

The opera begins in September 1884. Treemonisha, being eighteen years old, now starts on her career as a teacher and leader.

At first reading it is quite obvious that this preface to the dramatic plot of Treemonisha contains autobiographical implications (as does the entire opera). The story begins in 1866, just two years before Joplin’s birth in 1868, and just one year after the end of the Civil War and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, in 1865. Texarkana is Joplin’s actual birthplace and the plantation, as it is depicted, represents a typical, mid-19th century Southern environment with all the activities that it entails: a quintessential community of slave owners and slaves where cotton was raised and where black and white people lived, worked, interacted and exchanged messages and cultural traits as well as those inherent in the traditional owner-slave and “massa” – field worker relationship(Texarkana, by the way, at the time also had a rather rich trade economy). It is meaningful that the Treemonisha story begins just after the end of slavery and at the birth of freedom. The number of Afro-Americans living in East Texas (where Texarkana is located) represented a community whose size at the time exceeded that of the white population. In Bowie County, where Joplin was born, there were 1,641 black residents according to the 1850 census (see Haskins and Benson, 1979:24).



[1] As discussed below, during his Texarkana years Joplin had another German music teacher, Julius Weiss. Both Weiss and Ernst would be crucial in shaping Joplin’s knowledge in European music, while it is likely that his juvenile exposure to opera and to musical theatre in general was made possible by the existence of two theatres built in Texarkana in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Ghio and the Orr.

[2] Ragtime flourished in other cities too. See or example the Ph.D. thesis by John Edward Hasse The Creation and Dissemination of Indianapolis Ragtime, 1897-1930, later printed by Indiana University Press, 1981.

[3] It is certain that Joplin knew and played on the piano some of Stephen Foster’s most popular tunes. In the repertoire of this first famous American songwriter there appears also a song entitled Uncle Ned. The lyrics of the song describe the character of Uncle Ned as an old man no longer living who used to play the violin. According to Ken Emerson (1997: 10) Foster had drawn this figure from a song by Dan Emmett, an author of the minstrelsy era, describing a gin-drinking and potato-eating Negro. All these references maybe inspired Joplin in the choice of the name and characterization of Treemonisha’s adoptive father.

[4] On the march and its instrumental transposition by American bands, see the essay by Thornton Hagert “Band and orchestral ragtime” in John Edward Hasse, ed., Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music, Schirmer, New York 1985, pp. 268-284. Hagert also points out how, during its first phase of popularity, ragtime was played not only by pianists and singers but also by groups with mandolins (and other string instruments), ensembles of wind instruments (with drums) and orchestras with varied intruments, including violin and cello. This wide production of orchestral ragtime is documented on piano rolls and 78 rpm records.

[5] Figures indicated that in the first decade of the 20th century New York hosted almost one hundred music publishers. This was the reason why Stark moved to this metropolis but, at the same time, its competitive environment created difficulties for his business, and he decided to go back to St.Louis.

[6] See Berlin(1994/R 2016:248)