Marilyn Nonken is a classical pianist known for playing some of the most challenging music of the 20th and 21st centuries. That Scott Joplin’s music does not present the technical difficulties that often attract her attention might make us wonder what enticed her to devote an entire CD to seventeen of his solo and collaborative compositions. The CD notes do specifically address that particular issue, but its discussion of the quality, inventiveness, and emotion of Joplin’s craft reveals that these are among the features that appeal to Nonken.
Joplin brought excellence to his music, regardless of genre, evident from the acclaim he received. His early vocal quartet groups, for which he did the arrangements, were universally praised, and blues pioneer W.C. Handy noted that of the many Black quartets in St. Louis in 1892-93, Joplin’s was the best. Similarly, his theater piece from 1899–1900 (later published only in part as The Ragtime Dance) moved one white newspaper in Sedalia, Missouri (where memories of slavery were still vivid) to label him a genius, an appraisal amplified by Alfred Ernst, conductor of the Saint Louis Choral Symphony Society. While enjoying recognition for his vernacular compositions, Joplin really aspired to be recognized as a classical composer, clearly indicated by his composition of two operas and the report, several months before his death, that he was writing a symphony. Though he had many successes, he never received the recognition he sought during his lifetime.
Interest in at least some of Joplin’s music did not totally fade after his death in 1917, but it took a half-century before it began to acquire a classical mantle. In the mid-1960s, composer William Bolcom shared an office at Queens College with Rudi Blesh, co-author of They All Played Ragtime. In response to Bolcom’s questions about Joplin’s Treemonisha, Blesh provided copies of the opera and of several rags. Bolcom, intrigued by the music, was inspired to compose a few of his own rags, using a more contemporary musical language.
He also spread the word to some of his colleagues: William Albright, who joined Bolcom in composing contemporary rags; T.J. Anderson who, working from Joplin’s piano-vocal score, orchestrated Treemonisha; Vera Brodsky Lawrence, who compiled a two-volume edition of Joplin’s music, published by the New York Public Library; and Joshua Rifkin. Rifkin used his position at Nonesuch Records, a classical label, to record his own performances of a few Joplin rags.
Unexpectedly, this recording became a major hit and, because it was issued by Nonesuch Records, the industry labelled the music as “classical.” In addition to signaling the advent of the Scott Joplin revival of the 1970s, it opened Joplin’s music to classical performers. H. Wiley Hitchcock provided additional rationale to classical performances when he wrote in the April 1971 issue of Stereo Review that Joplin rags were “the precise American equivalent, in terms of a native style of dance music, of minuets by Mozart, mazurkas by Chopin, or waltzes by Brahms.”
Taking up the invitation, many classical performers began including Joplin’s music in recital programs. This development was substantially enabled by publication in 1971 of the New York Public Library edition of Joplin’s collected works (not complete works, as a few were missing), providing access to many rare pieces, long out-of-print; some of the music, with incomplete copyright registrations, were not even available at the Library of Congress.
Generally, the classical approach is to remain faithful to the score and reproduce it with technical clarity rather than to embellish the music with inventive variations and improvisations. Classical artists may differentiate and personalize their performances with subtleties, highlighting features that might otherwise go unnoticed, using touch and dynamics to separate distinctive lines and to adjust expressiveness. Nonken follows these principles and excels in their execution; her playing is always ultra clean, precise, and well considered. For the most part, she adheres to Joplin’s notation and directions, although she deviates slightly in two selections: in Swipesy Cake Walk (co-composed with his one-time student Arthur Marshall) she adds a few grace notes and, in part of the final strain, plays the melody an octave higher; in Reflection Rag she adds a few trills.
Nonken’s tempos are usually brisk, the fastest being with Stoptime Rag, for which Joplin directed “Fast or Slow,” as opposed to his usual admonition against playing ragtime fast. Nonken takes it at about 120 beats-per-minute, and it goes like the wind. Most classical pianists whose Joplin performances I’ve heard play this piece slightly percussively; Nonken plays it generally legato, and in the final strain presents an even smoother legato that’s both unexpected and delicious. This final strain is a good example of how classical pianists, all playing the same notes, may personalize their performances.
Nonken plays Joplin’s most sensuous pieces much more slowly, taking Heliotrope Bouquet (co-composed with Louis Chauvin) closer to 70 beats-per-minute and Solace, marked by Joplin as “Very slow march time,” at around 60. With Lily Queen, published as a co-composition with Arthur Marshall, Nonken brings out the inherent interest that resides in the bass line. The publisher, W.W. Stuart, was a small firm on Tin Pan Alley, a block from the rooming house where Joplin resided in New York. Marshall had told Blesh and Janis that the composition was entirely his own and that Joplin, who had brought the music to the publisher (Marshall was living in Chicago), added his name simply to encourage sales. However, Marshall’s manuscript is extant and was auctioned about 6–7 years ago with other ragtime memorabilia from the Rudi Blesh estate. I examined the manuscript at that time and, in comparing it from memory with the published music, noted many differences: these are in the notation, in the inner-voice leading and the placement of notes within chords, and in the melody of the final strain. These changes could have been made by the firm’s editor, if it had one, but are more likely to have been the work of Joplin, for they are totally consistent with his style.
Not all classical pianists who perform Joplin’s music produce a satisfactory result. I’ve heard recordings and live performances in which the pianist, taking to an extreme Joplin’s caution against playing ragtime fast, ignore its dance music function and adopt a dirge-like tempo that destroys its toe-tapping nature. Others play it with the bombast of a late Romantic piano concerto, a course that overwhelms the music. Nonken joins the group of classicists who understand the character of ragtime and have the skill and temperament to enhance it in performance. I expect that Joplin would have been thrilled to hear Nonken play his music; I know that I am.
Marilyn Nonken • Syncopated Musings
Divine Art Recordings Group (DDA 25220)