If you want to start a fight at a ragtime concert, start mucking with the tempo of the music. YouTube videos are full of comments about how fast or slow the pianist is playing any particular piece. The King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, himself wrote “it is never right to play Ragtime fast.” But how fast is fast? There are piano roll recordings of Joplin himself clocking in the “Maple Leaf Rag” at around 100 beats per minute. That feels about right for a style of music that was based in equal parts on African syncopation and European harmony, dressed up as a lively march.
Now there’s a new release of William Appling’s final recordings of Scott Joplin’s complete piano works, and they’re presented at measured tempi that allow the ear to better hear Joplin’s inventive harmonies, but I confess that with few exceptions, the heart wants what it wants, and for the most part I want my rags to pop when I hear ‘em.
Nevertheless, this new set offers plenty of riches and rare performances, from the three-quarter time, parlor-room elegance of “The Augustan Club Waltzes” and “Harmony Club Waltz” to the lilting “Solace,” and even a composition based on the largely forgotten real-life “Crash at Crush,” when an MKT railroad agent cooked up a publicity stunt to smash two steam engines into one another in East Texas. The collision killed two (maybe three) spectators, injured several others, and led Joplin to write the “Great Crush Collision” march, complete with pianistic flourishes meant to imitate the sound of a locomotive.
Appling’s performance of these rags is welcome for lovers of the genre, which to this day still falls somewhere between the world of jazz and classical, never quite getting its due. His interpretations, while not supplanting the now classic recordings of Joshua Rifkin, are illuminating, and the four-disc set also includes a lengthy booklet detailing the historical context of Scott Joplin's life and the development of ragtime. Born in Texarkana only a few years after the end of the Civil War, Joplin's musical education included classical training as well as spirituals, chants, shouts, and other African American traditions from across the southern states. This complete recording of Joplin's rags in that case is illuminating as you can trace the composer's development over 18 years. It's also something of a miracle. William Appling died in 2008, and these recordings represent his last work, as well as the only complete cycle of Scott Joplin's rags recorded by an African American musician. "The Complete Rags" documents an essential piece of our American musical fabric.