Tuesday 14 July 2015

Who was the best, most original, most important composer from the United States?

Scott Joplin (1867/8-1917).

There are no great US composers - no-one of the stature of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner - so we are comparing minor figures.  

Joplin was a miniaturist - but he achieved perfection, many times over, in his genre. He established Ragtime and became, without dispute, its best writer; and Ragtime led to Jazz - which was America's major contribution to world music.

This is one of Joplin's less-well-known works, but a favourite of mine: Nonpareil. I find it absolutely and completely delightful in its gentle, lyrical fluidity! -- Great all through; but wait for the fourth and final theme with its extreme syncopated arpeggios -- so wistful, so yearning - yet so easy to enjoy!...


drizzz said...

I've been listening to quite a bit of Joplin lately while weeding through my old Lp's trying to decide which ones are worth recording onto CD. Wistful is definitely the word for much of his work, I particularly enjoy Magnetic Rag and Silver Swan.

Noel said...

Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Richard Rogers, George Gershwin

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - Good choices!

@N - I don't think the jazz composers are sufficiently widely-enjoyed (plus, I personally don't enjoy them!) - but I agree that Rogers and Gershwin are strong candidates.

Hawk Spitui said...

Sorry, but I just don't see it. I've listened to Joplin's original recordings, and truthfully his compositions all sound pretty much the same. Every time somebody presents an example of Joplin's alleged brilliance, it's a heavily interpreted version by another performer, usually presented in isolation so you don't realize Joplin was mostly a one-trick pony. That his compositions can occasionally be presented as listenable speaks more to the talents of the interpreters than the composer's. An album of Joplin's original performances is sufficiently monotonous to be a guaranteed cure for insomnia.

The closest analog I can think of is the Byrds endowing Dylan's songs with a musical competence entirely absent in the originals. The distinction between Dylan and Joplin being that at least Dylan could write lyrics powerful enough to transcend his pedestrian chord progressions and melodies. Joplin, writing purely instrumental pieces, had no such compensating strength.

As for American composers, there's little of note to be said for it's art music, mostly it's stronger creative efforts are found in it's pop music, composers such as Harry Warren, George Cohan and the aforementioned Gershwin.

Other than that, while America appears incapable of producing a Mozart or a Bach, it has an apparently inexhaustible supply of guitar twanging commies that can't carry a tune in a bucket (Pete Seegar, Dylan, Springsteen, etc.)

Leo said...

I have fairly conventional favorites.

Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Randall Thompson, Morten Laurisden, Eric Whitacre (you can see my personal tastes), plus Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, John Philip Sousa, John Williams, Stephen Foster (for an American pops concert)

Bruce Charlton said...

@HS - That's fine! - plenty of people don't respond to Shakespeare, after all - so when it comes to the multitude of minor artists there is plenty of scope for disagreement.

I was making the case not only in terms of accessibility, originality and perfection in what was certainly a brief, minor and miniature genre (i.e. ragtime piano), but also musical influence and being distinctively American.

Bruce B. said...

Ferdi Grofe?

Bruce Charlton said...

Talking of Ferdi Grofe, I have a soft spot for Scott Bradley! - a pasticheur rather than a composer, but the score he prepared for Mouse in Manhattan retrospectively captures the Jazz Age perfectly. His magnum opus, I think: