Scott Joplin Didn't Die of Opera Failure

Emi Ferguson

This Composer is Sick, Ep4 - Scott Joplin Didn't Die of Opera Failure
Release Date: September 29, 2022

John Schaefer: You're listening to the Artist Propulsion Lab, WQXR's incubator for emerging and mid-career artists. I'm John Schaefer, and today is the final episode of flute player Emi Ferguson's miniseries, This Composer is Sick, exploring the impact of syphilis on the lives of classical composers. To wrap things up, she looks at a composer who spent his last years in New York City, and is buried in Queens. Namely, Scott Joplin. Here's Emi.

MUSIC: The Entertainer

Emi Ferguson: Even if you don't know anything about Scott Joplin, you have almost certainly heard one or two pieces by him. Like this one…

Clip of the Entertainer

Emi Ferguson: The Entertainer, which you definitely know if you've ever heard an ice-cream truck driving by. There's another piece of his that you probably know as well...

Clip of the Maple Leaf Rag

Emi Ferguson: That's Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag, arguably his most famous composition. 

So you might know Joplin’s music, but there is a lot we don't know about Scott Joplin the person.

Ed Berlin: We know too little about Scott Joplin probably because of race. So that newspapers for the most part did not write about him.

Emi Ferguson: That's Joplin biographer and ragtime scholar, Ed Berlin. One of the difficulties of being a Joplin scholar is that there's not much primary source material to work with, and if you’ve been listening to our previous episodes, this may sound familiar), There's only one surviving letter written by Joplin.

Ed Berlin: And that was written to the copyright office. 

Emi Ferguson: That was for his first opera, A Guest of Honor.

Ed Berlin: And when, uh, people who knew him were interviewed, they were talking 50, 60, 70 years after they knew him. And so, you know, the, the stories change memories, memories are difficult. So we really know too little about Scott Joplin.

Emi Ferguson: We don't know Joplin's exact birthday, but we know he was likely born in the latter half of 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War. Music was really important to the Joplin family – they encouraged a young Scott and his siblings. 

By the 1890s, early in his musical career, Scott Joplin was part of a singing  quartet, called the Texas Medley Quartet.

Ed Berlin: – like a barbershop quartet. 

Emi Ferguson: He would have been in his early twenties at the time, singing "second tenor," which means Joplin actually would have sang the main melody. The quartet got great reviews.

Ed Berlin: He was apparently a very fine singer.

Emi Ferguson: The Texas Medley Quartet toured the midwest, and there are also newspaper records of performances by them in Syracuse and Boston.

Contracting Syphilis

Emi Ferguson: Unlike our previous composer case studies, Franz Schubert, and Bedrich Smetana, we know that Scott Joplin DEFINITELY had syphilis. For one, he knew he had syphilis and he talked about it.

Ed Berlin: He, he spoke of it himself. 

Emi Ferguson: He told fellow composer and pianist Eubie Blake that he had syphilis. It's also on his death certificate. While we know that Joplin died of syphilis, figuring out the timeline for its progression is much harder. 

Ed Berlin: we don't know exactly when he contracted the disease, the primary infection could have been as early as 1894.

Emi Ferguson: This would have been five years before he would have even published his first rags, so it’s possible that most or all of his composition career overlapped with his having syphilis. But again, we just really don't have any way of knowing exactly when he would have contracted syphilis, because we generally know so little about Joplin’s life. He published his first composition in 1895, a song called "Please Say You Will." In 1899 he published his first ragtime pieces, the "Original Rags." Not long after, he published the Maple Leaf  Rag, which would go on to sell about half a million copies in its first decade of sales alone. The turn of the century marked a turning point both for Joplin's life and career, and also for scientific progress in syphilis treatment.

Sheila Lukehart: The idea that there was actually an infectious agent was very, very new, until the end of the 19th century, 

Emi Ferguson: That's Dr. Sheila Lukehart, our resident syphilis expert.

Sheila Lukehart: The agent of syphilis was first identified in 1905.

Emi Ferguson: That agent being the bacterium Treponema Pallidum. Before this, doctors diagnosed through symptoms only - and you might remember, these symptoms can vary WIDELY and look like many different ailments resulting in Syphilis’ nickname through the centuries, “The Great Imitator.” No wonder it is so hard to find conclusive medical records of diagnoses of syphilis. With the laboratory discovery of the bacterium that causes syphilis, more advancement followed.

Sheila Lukehart: There was like a decade between the identification of the organism, the, um, first development of the first serological test–

Emi Ferguson: that’s a blood test, the same quick and easy test we use today to identify syphilis– 

Sheila Lukehart: –and the development of the first really effective treatment for syphilis that all happened within 10 years in the early 1900s.

Emi Ferguson: Although the most effective treatment for syphilis, penicillin, wouldn’t come into widespread use until after WWII, scientists were developing more effective treatments than the mercury treatments that had been used for centuries prior. All these advancements were happening while Scott Joplin was forging a path for himself as a composer. 

Joplin moves to St. Louis in 1901, and composes the first of two operas, as well as many of his piano rags.

Ed Berlin: He wrote his first opera called A Guest of Honor. The music is lost, but based on the little bit of information, I'm pretty certain that it is about Booker T Washington's visit  to Theodore Roosevelt's White House. Booker T Washington would've been the guest of honor. That was in 1903.

Emi Ferguson: There was supposed to be a performance in Illinois, with Joplin himself singing the role of Booker T. Washington, but unfortunately for Joplin, the manager of the company performing it ran off with the money and the performance was canceled. This wasn't the only bad luck that would happen to Joplin with his operas. We do still have his second opera, Treemonisha, which takes place on a plantation in Arkansas in September of 1884, and traces the journey of a young Black woman named Treemonisha, who becomes a leader of her community. 

After years of work, Scott Joplin spent much of his last years trying to get Treemoinisha performed. He moves to New York in 1907, and published the opera in 1911, personally filing the copyright in Washington D.C.

Ed Berlin: Hoping to find a publisher for his music and hoping to get the opera performed.

Emi Ferguson: He builds a life for himself in New York. He continues composing, and marries his third wife, Lottie. Like many New Yorkers, he moves around the city, living all over Manhattan, and took in the many different cultures of New York. You can hear this in his last published piece, the Magnetic Rag from 1914.

Ed Berlin: For example, it shows a definite influence of blues, and, uh, it shows the influence of Yiddish theater. 

Yiddish theater was very big in New York at that time, so he heard it and he used the ideas of Yiddish theater in the second part of his Magnetic Rag.

Emi Ferguson: All the while he never gave up on his opera Treemonisha.

Ed Berlin: Every few months there were notices in the New York Age, which was a black newspaper, of planned performances of Treemonisha and these never materialized.

Emi Ferguson: There was one section of the opera that he heard in its fully orchestrated version, the “Frolic of the Bears.”


But it's also worth noting that today we don't have Joplin's orchestration of Treemonisha, which has been lost.

However, he did manage to hear the opera in its entirety one time.

Ed Berlin: Probably around 1911 he put on a private performance in, in a small theater in Harlem. There was no orchestra. He was playing it at the piano and there were singers. 

Emi Ferguson: It may have sounded something like this 2019 performance, recorded in WQXR’s Greene Space.

Excerpt of “A Real Slow Drag” from Treemonisha

Ed Berlin: All the information I can get is that it was not received well at all. It is not a very dramatic work. I mean, even his best friend at that time, who helped him write the orchestration, said, there's good music there, but it's not a good story. He was an experienced composer, but he was not an experienced dramatist.

People said he died because of the failure of this opera. Of course, that was not the reason, people don't die of opera failure.

Emi Ferguson: He died of syphilis. Now, most of what we know about Joplin's experiences with syphilis are limited to the tertiary stage, and as we know…

Ed Berlin: Without more medical information, it's all guesswork.

Emi Ferguson: There are instances in Joplin's last days that point to symptoms of neurosyphilis.

Ed Berlin: His widow, Lottie Joplin said that toward the end, he became very difficult and paranoid.

Emi Ferguson: Remember, late neurosyphilis can also result in depression, dementia, personality changes, and more.

Ed Berlin: He was afraid that his, that after he died, his music would be stolen. So instead he destroyed it. There are many titles that, uh, people had spoken of that were never published. 

Emi Ferguson: We don't know all of what Joplin destroyed in this paranoid state, brought on by his syphilis. But judging by what Joplin claimed to various newspapers while he was alive, and titles of lost works written down by one of his friends, we have a sense of what’s been lost.

Ed Berlin: He would write to the newspapers telling him what music he had just written. He claimed that he had written a piano concerto, a symphony, and then he gave titles of, uh, specific rags.

Emi Ferguson: I definitely would love to hear a symphony and a piano concerto by Scott Joplin, and I wonder what his legacy might be if he hadn’t destroyed so many scores.

Joplin was admitted to Manhattan State Hospital, on Ward's Island, in New York City in February of 1917. This was the largest psychiatric hospital in the world at the time.

Ed Berlin: He died there almost eight weeks later, April 1st, 1917, with a diagnosis of Dementia paralytica cerebral form with a contributing cause of syphilis. Now that last part is really incorrect because syphilis was the main cause, not just a contributing cause. He had syphilis of the brain and spinal cord, which rendered him paralyzed and insane.

Emi Ferguson: He was only 49, his life cut short by a disease he battled with for much of his adult life, and a disease that’s still hard to talk about.

Joplin died as ragtime was starting to fall out of favor with the public. But even he thought that his music would not fully be appreciated in his own lifetime.

Ed Berlin: He said that his music will be appreciated after he's dead for 25 years. Well, he died in 1917 and early-1940s, that's when that's when some jazz musicians began playing Scott Joplin's music.

Emi Ferguson: In the 1970s as both a result of a ragtime revival and the movie The Sting starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Joplin’s music comes back into popularity, and it’s stayed popular ever since.

Treemonisha got its first full-fledged production in 1972, and has been revived multiple times since then. Joplin even posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976… for Treemonisha


Emi Ferguson: That wraps up This Composer is SICK, and our  investigation into how syphilis impacted the lives of Franz Schubert, Bedrich Smetana, and Scott Joplin

CLIP: People don’t have to have syphilis today, and yet many of them do.

And while we have effective treatments for syphilis today, there’s no easy treatment for the taboo around it. But we do need to talk about it. 

CLIP: Let us measure the spread of syphilis.

While syphilis fell to an all-time low in the US around the year 2000, it’s been on the rise again for the last 20 years. Just between 2016 and 2020, case rates increased 52%. But –

CLIP: we can stamp out Syphilis–

EMI: With safe sex practices and education, and accessible testing and treatment, we have the tools we need to fight syphilis, we just have to use them.

As a reminder, you can get tested and treated at a nearby sexual health clinic if you’re worrried you might have syphilis or any sexually transmitted infection.  You can find links to clinics here in NYC on the episode webpage. I’m Emi Ferguson, thanks for listening.

John Schaefer: This episode was produced by Emi Ferguson, Max Fine, and Laura Boyman. Matt Frassica is our editor. Additional production assistance by Jade Jiang and Hanako Yamaguchi. 

Special thanks to the Greene Space, Naxos of America, New World Records for their recordings of Joplin’s works, and the New York City Municipal Archives, New York Public Radio archives, and Nsikan Akpan.

Next time, cellist Andrew Yee joins us with an audio memoir about their experiences as a biracial transwoman.

I’m John Schaefer, thanks for listening!

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