Monday Notes

Solace Mexican Serenade, Scott Joplin recommends: don’t play too fast

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[Monday Notes no. 82] Scott Joplin was the main inventor of ragtime. The composer wrote on his sheet music ‘Don’t play this piece too fast. It is never correct to play Ragtime too fast’, an instruction rarely respected by pianists. In fact, ragtime is often considered a virtuoso exercise and is played at excessive speed and volume. Let’s analyse his composition Solace Mexican Serenade.

Unlike the blues, which is based more on lyrics and emotion than on instrumental prowess, jazz was characterised from the very beginning by a focus on technical and instrumental prowess. It is no coincidence that the first stride pianists competed in real contests, including an audience vote.

Even today, some jam sessions are a challenge between soloists who try to show off their skills rather than look for beauty in the music. In such cases, the result is music that is difficult to play… and boring to listen to. The greatest jazz musicians, on the other hand, manage to keep bravura and beauty in balance, putting the former at the service of the latter.

Ragtime is certainly a difficult piano repertoire, it evolved into stride piano thanks to Pete Johnson, Fats Waller, Art Tatum and other great jazz pianists. However, Scott Joplin claimed to write ragtime only for pleasure and considered his other works much more important.

Solace Mexican Serenade is one of his most beautiful and interesting piano pieces. The composition dates from 1909 and has a rhythm that is halfway between tango and habanera.

Scott Joplin - Solace mexican serenade spartito

Scott Joplin was writing music long before recording systems became widespread; when this happened, an entire generation of musicians was induced to stay within the three-minute time limit, the technical limit of early records. Joplin, on the other hand, still relied on the score for his music and this is also why the piece is rather long and articulate.

Supposedly, Joplin was the first to sell over a million copies of a score in America, with his 1900 Maple Leaf Rag. It is therefore not surprising the influence ragtime had on later music.

Scott Joplin Maple Leaf Rag spartito
Maple Leaf Rag sheet music – frontispiece

In this recording of Solace we can appreciate the interpretation of Norwegian pianist Morten Gunnar Larsen, who fully respects the delicacy of the piece. Scott Joplin never managed to have his more serious works performed in his lifetime, but only the ragtime pieces; now his major works, albeit a century late, are also known and played throughout the world.

Until next Monday!

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