Scott Joplin: Treemonisha Overture


Scott Joplin is remembered for being one of the most memorable ragtime composers of the turn-of-the-century during his lifetime (1868-1917). After Joplin’s death in 1917, ragtime music came out of the ‘mainstream’ line and started to form into the likes of jazz, big band swing and the blues. Joplin’s music went out of fashion, with only a small number of ragtime aficionados keeping his music alive. It wasn’t until some groundbreaking recordings done in the 1970s that Joplin’s music found a new lease of life. A number of his piano rags and his opera Treemonisha have become some of the most recognisable music of the genre. 

Joplin composed the music for his opera Treemonisha in 1911 and it is often referred to as a ‘Ragtime Opera’. Unlike many of Joplin’s piano works, Treemonisha remained relatively unknown until a breakthrough performance happened in 1972. From that, Joplin was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1976 for the music in Treemonisha. The opera celebrates African-American music such as spirituals, blues, ragtime and jazz, but Joplin was sure to say that the opera is about the education and salvation of African Americans. 


The Music

Along with a prelude, arias, recitatives and a full ballet scene, Treemonisha is opened with an evocative overture. The woodwinds state the first theme of the overture alongside the brass, whilst being accompanied by the strings. Joplin’s colourful chromatic movement creates excitement as fast, intricate themes are passed between the sections. With quick scalic runs and syncopated movement the overture starts with a bang. A suspended solo cello leads into the next section which is led by the strings. 

Now slightly slower in tempo, this new section sees the woodwind take a decorative approach to their parts, with sparkling flutes accentuating the rich dance-like string theme. As the tempo begins to pick up again, the lower brass return with a hint of the next theme to come. A solo violin and flute duet with the slow melody, with the cello joining in halfway through. Joplin’s more intricate writing creates swirls of sound which keeps the music moving along. 

After the slow central section, the trumpets sound the next faster in. The tempo is pulled around greatly at this point, with the brass and lower strings being the driving force. Joplin utilizes some tutti playing as sections unite to present their theme against another section. This creates some intriguing tension between the ensemble, before they all concede and allow another slower section to play out. 

Now lead by a muted trumpet and trombone, this blues-like section is sultry and is also littered with chromatic harmony. The use of tubular bells, crash cymbal and timpani adds excitement and texture to the music. Pizzicato basses and staccato clarinets play with the muted trumpet as the music seems to be coming to an end. However this is not the case as Joplin teases the audience with another quick-paced section.

The playful final minute of the overture sees all the previous themes come together one by one as the harmony builds up to the climax of the overture. The overture comes to its conclusion as the orchestra unites to play the final four chords.


Final Thoughts

Although not one of his most well-known works, Treemonisha is an important work in Joplin’s repertoire as it highlights his orchestral writing and how he transfers intricate piano rag themes to an orchestra set up. The overture is full of exciting harmony and textures and opens this opera with positivity and hope.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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