In 1910, Scott Joplin was 42 years old. He aims to create a new opera, seven years after the bitter failure of the first (A Gest of honor). Not discouraged, he wants to hit harder, get out of the frame of the only rag time opera, demonstrate that he does not have to restrain himself from wanting to create, him the African-American, son of a slave, an even more ambitious opera and of which he produces libretto and music. It will be Treemonisha. But no one wants to bet a dollar on such a project. Joplin therefore made a score for piano which he orchestrated and then published at his own expense in 1911. The work was moreover rather well received by the musical press. It was performed once, privately at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, with the composer at the piano and always at his own expense, a few years later, without much success. Joplin, disappointed and ill, would never write for opera again and died in 1917.
More than 50 years pass. Vera Brodsky Lawrence, pianist and historian of American music brings back the old score of Scott Joplin. and excerpts from it were presented at Lincoln Center in the fall of 1971. But the real resurrection of Joplin’s opera took place a few months later, in Atlanta. On January 27, 1972, he is indeed represented in a version for orchestra, produced by Thomas Jefferson Anderson Junior, orchestrator, conductor and musicologist, with, at the head of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Shaw, of whom it should be remembered that he was one of the first to include African-Americans in his famous choir. It is the choreographer Katherine Dunham who regulates the dances and the staging. The work was very well received. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it interested enough for other musicologists or arrageurs to start orchestrating it.
Treemonisha is a young freedman, adopted daughter of Monisha, a housekeeper who is unmistakably reminiscent of Joplin’s own mother, and Ned, who found her abandoned under a tree, hence her strange name. She lives in Texas – the state where Joplin is from. Educated, knowing how to read, she alerts her community against external dangers and in particular the superstitions of wizards, led by Zodzetrick, and who rob the credulous with false promises. The community chooses her as leader and she is helped by Relus, her fiancé. Obviously, the villains don’t hear it that way and want to kidnap Treemonisha. Remus saves her with his terrifying disguise, which scares Zodzetrick away. Captured, he fears Treemonisha’s revenge, but she opposes it and prefers to give them a little moral lesson. Village chief, teacher, Treemonisha only wanted to celebrate the harmony found in a marvelous Real slow rag.
Joplin embraces the forms of European opera, but incorporates countless references to ragtime, jazz, gospel, in 3 acts, producing a unique and exciting work, for our greatest happiness.
Among the orchestrators of this posthumous score, Gunther Schuller recorded his version for Deutsche Grammophon shortly after his rediscovery, with the Houston Opera and the late Carmen Balthtrop, who passed away last September, in the title role, whom she will resume on stage. on Broadway (you can see excerpts of it on YouTube). Here is the wonderful finale of this unique score, an opportunity to pay tribute to the great musician that was Scott Joplin.
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January 27, 1972: 50 years ago, a revival of Scott Joplin | Forum Opera