On Tempo & Verve in Classic Ragtime

By Fred Hoeptner

On March 28, Brad Kay guested on Jeff Stone's "Ragtime Show" and presented selections from his new CD entitled "The Real Sound of Ragtime." Over the years Brad has gathered an unmatched collection of cylinders and discs from the acoustic recording era and has performed a superb job of audio engineering to enhance the sound quality. I highly recommend the CD for anyone seriously interested in ragtime and its history. Brad postulated the reasonable theory that the study of early recordings was the most reliable way to determine the performance characteristics of ragtime during the "ragtime era" (generally considered to be 1897-1925). Unquestionably his selections were the sound of band and orchestral ragtime as it was played in that era when it functioned as music for dance and march, but I propose that they may not have been the sound that Scott Joplin and Joe Lamb would have intended for performances of their rags in concert settings.

Brad pointed out several differences from current performance practices: faster tempos, more verve and vitality. In general, tempos of the instrumental selections that he played from the period 1889 to 1913 spanned the range 120 to 130 beats per minute. By contrast, tempos that classical pianist Joshua Rifkin used in his 1970 recording that initiated the ragtime revival ranged from 60 to 102 beats per minute, averaging 77. Brad cited Joplin's "Gladiolus Rag," one of only five rags in the "classic rag" category that were recorded during the ragtime era, as an example. He played an excerpt from Rifkin's version from 1970 at 66 beats per minute, and contrasted this with the 1913 version of the Pathe Dance Orchestra at 112 beats per minute.

Dick Zimmerman, in his detailed, groundbreaking study of tempos published in seven installments in The Rag Times in 1998 and 99, reached similar conclusions but carried the issue further. Dick correlated the markings on the sheet music and a vintage description of a firemen's parade with metronome values indicated on a few scores and concluded that the range 92 to 104 beats per minute best represented the indication "slow march tempo" that was often marked on the printed scores of rags during the era, especially Joplin's and Lamb's compositions. He contended that a tempo of less than 66 beats per minute would disqualify a performance from categorization as ragtime.

In addition, although admitting that some of the performances were quite enjoyable, Dick belittled performances exhibiting the approach of the classically trained pianist-that is, playing the score essentially as written without significant improvisation, giving prominence to inner voices, infusing carefully selected dynamic and tempo variations-as not being ragtime and suggested that these pianists should refer to their music as "Syncopated Salon Piano." "The time has passed when performers can be excused for presenting music as genuine ragtime which clearly would never have originally passed for such," he concluded.

On the other hand, musicologist and Joplin biographer Ed Berlin, in his 1994 book King of Ragtime, suggests that Joplin aspired to associate himself with "high art" and to increase the prestige of ragtime from its primordial status as music to accompany the two-step and "coon song." Berlin considered that the Rifkin recordings had finally realized this goal: "Rifkin performed Scott Joplin's classic ragtime as Joplin would have wanted: as classical music." Tex Wyndham, author and respected ragtime and jazz record reviewer since 1966 for a series of music publications including The Mississippi Rag, had expressed similar opinions in his 1971 review of Rifkin's recording published in The Ragtimer. After citing the performance style as "the way that [Joplin] undoubtedly wanted [the selections] played," Wyndham observed, "...with each note clearly articulated, and without the 'hot' jazz pulse usually given to them by most ragtimers, Joplin's compositions are revealed as intricate, graceful, rich, melodic selections that are in every way worthy of the care which Rifkin lavishes on them."

Unfortunately, piano performances of the classic rag genre (that is, the rags of Joplin, Scott, Lamb, and perhaps a few others) were not recorded during the ragtime era. Only three Joplin rags were recorded at all, and these by dance orchestras ("Gladiolus" and "Wall Street") or military bands ("Maple Leaf"). The piano recording examples that Zimmerman cites in his study, most of which exceed 100 beats per minute, fall in the categories of "novelty piano" and "stride" (Zez Confrey, Roy Bargy, James P. Johnson, etc.) rather than classic ragtime.

However, there exists a primary document that has seemingly been ignored in this controversy. After an extensive search folk musicologist Samuel B. Charters located Joe Lamb, one of the "big three" classic ragtime composers, at his home in Brooklyn in 1959 and recorded him performing ten of his rags. Charters noted that Lamb "...felt it very important to have the recording finished and worked very hard during the weeks it took to get the final versions of his rags [completed]." It would certainly seem reasonable that Lamb performed his compositions at the tempos that he believed appropriate. Let's review them. The fastest is "Sensation," at 92 beats per minute, followed by "Cleopatra" at 80 beats per minute. This would be expected as these are clearly the most rhythmic and least melodic of the set. Next come "Cottontail," "Excelsior," and "Top Liner," all at 76 beats per minute, followed by "Alaskan" and "Patricia" at 72. The slowest are "Ragtime Nightingale," "American Beauty," and "Contentment," all at 69 beats per minute.

If Lamb wanted his rags "Excelsior," "Topliner," "Patricia," "Nightingale," "American Beauty," and "Contentment" ("Cottontail" and "Alaskan" weren't published during the ragtime era) to be performed at the foregoing tempos, why were they marked "slow march tempo" which, according to Zimmerman, implied a tempo of 92 to 104? I can only speculate that the term included a lower range of tempos than Dick's studies revealed. A confirming example is Joplin's "Eugenia," marked "slow march tempo, quarter note = 72." Then why did the Pathe Dance Orchestra play "Gladiolus," marked "slow march tempo," at the hectic speed of 112 beats per minute (Dick said 102, but I timed it faster)? Again, I can only speculate, but the spirited style of performance, featuring a prominent drum accompaniment, clearly indicated that it was intended to accompany lively dancing and marching. I intuit that a concert performance would have been slower, even during the ragtime era. Perhaps Joshua Rifkin's performances were not so excessively slow and languid after all.

John T. Carney's Original Rags for Download

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