Background music

14th February 2003 at 00:00
The Sting - (1973) in which Paul Newman and Robert Redford star as 1930s Chicago con men - is the most sweetly musical of films, thanks to its delightfully insinuating signature-tune.

The music's real title is "The Entertainer", and its composer was Scott Joplin, the self-styled King of Ragtime. And that's generally assumed, rather patronisingly, to be all that Joplin was about; he simply had a knack for writing catchy melodies young pianists like to get their fingers round.

Well, that's how Chopin has also been patronised by those who fail to appreciate the art that conceals art: Chopin's piano works are miracles of deft compression, with not a note out of place. And so it was with Joplin.

His piano rags - the style was so named because of its jagged syncopations - were usually just 68 bars long, but in writing them he strove for what he called "classical" excellence. Moreover, to pigeonhole him as the purveyor of honky-tonk tunes is to gloss over his remarkable achievement.

As the son of a former Arkansas slave, he never knew precisely when he had been born - some time in the second half of 1867 - but he grew up in a musical family, and by his mid-twenties was the leader of a band. He wrote "Maple Leaf Rag" to celebrate a club of that name, and gradually his fame spread until he was composing rags for the American president.

In the meantime he'd embarked on more serious forms of creation. He wrote a ragtime ballet, then a ragtime opera called A Guest of Honor depicting a black leader's reception at the White House. And finally he wrote Treemonisha, an opera celebrating the post-Civil War liberation of an Arkansas plantation. It got only one performance during his lifetime - in Harlem in 1915, without scenery or orchestra - and had to wait for its triumphant premiere until the ragtime revival of the 1970s. There's sadly no available CD of that, but there's a lovely orchestral arrangement of his best-known works: Elite Syncopations (CRD 3329).

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