Notes on Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha

By Ariel Fielding

Treemonisha is an extraordinary opera that was fated to be little known in the lifetime of its composer, Scott Joplin (c. 1867-1917.) As one of the very first full-length dramatic stage works created by an African American artist for African American performers and African American audiences, Treemonisha (1911) proved challenging to publish and to produce, and received only a handful of performances in Scott Joplin’s day. Joplin specialized in ‘classic ragtime’, an intricate and sophisticated version of a highly syncopated style of African American popular music, and a precursor to jazz. While he excelled at ragtime, Scott Joplin was a trained composer of wide-ranging interests who refused to be limited by one particular style. In Treemonisha, Joplin weaves together distinctly African American musical elements such as call-and-response, the vocal quartet, the spiritual, the ring dance, and of course ragtime, along with evocations of Verdi, vaudeville, Native American music, Eastern European Jewish folk music, and the formal conventions of 18th and 19th century opera. In the hands of another composer, the transformation of this array of materials into a cohesive and compelling work of music theatre might have been improbable, but Joplin was a composer of prodigious talents and great vision, and he made Treemonisha sing.

The opera is set at a fascinating time in the history of the United States, in the year 1884. Slavery had been abolished for almost twenty years, black American men had legally had the vote for fourteen years, and the first black political leaders had been elected to public office. Despite the withdrawal of federal support for former slaves with the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the will for progress on the part of African Americans was unstoppable. Booker T. Washington had embarked on his life’s work as President of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, preparing black teachers to meet the enormous demand for education in the South. Washington’s eventual rival W.E.B. Du Bois was about to begin the university education that would launch him as another of the era’s great leaders. While the ideas and approaches of Washington and Du Bois differed substantially, both men aspired to uplift African Americans by instilling a positive self-image after centuries of degradation, and encouraging economic and social progress through education. This would appear to have been Joplin’s aim, too. By depicting an educated, freeborn young woman as a leader of her people, Joplin intended—as ragtime scholar Rick Benjamin argues—to reach a large popular audience of working class and middle class black folks on the vaudeville stage. His Treemonisha represents the way ahead: the potential for education to cultivate just and intelligent leaders, and the hope of African Americans for a brighter future. Joplin wanted nothing less than to create a refined and uplifting work for the masses.

Treemonisha was completed at a time when women in the United States were close to winning the vote, after more than sixty years of hard campaigning in the face of hostile resistance. While most American women had to wait until 1920 for this right, Joplin was ahead of his time in envisioning a woman in a position of authority and power. Although the suffrage movement was largely led by white women, Joplin would certainly have been aware, when he created the character of Treemonisha, of the parallel reform movement led by Oberlin graduate Mary Church Terrell. Terrell was one of the first African American women to be granted a university degree and was the founder of the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909.)

While the 1880s were a time of great hope and great progress, the era in which Treemonisha is set also saw the beginnings of white supremacist backlash against black freedom and black enfranchisement. Intimidation tactics ranged from segregation laws, to poll taxes and literacy tests for black voters, to the horrific violence of lynching—which continued through the late 1960s, a century after emancipation. This backlash had intensified by the time Joplin completed Treemonisha in 1911. While racism never enters directly into the plot of the opera, it would have been clearly understood by Joplin’s music hall audience as the ominous background to the sunny life of Treemonisha. The institution of slavery thrived on fear, and, though free, the conjurors—the villains of Joplin’s opera—continue to live fearfully, and to make their living spreading fear of bad luck and evil curses. Joplin thus uses the conventions of Victorian melodrama—also used to great effect in European operas of the day—to depict a stark contrast between the old fearful ways, and the fearless future.

The conjurors, in Joplin’s imagination, are not genuine practitioners of the Yoruba religious practices carried across the Atlantic with the African diaspora, but mere fearmongers hampered by a lack of education. The true spirituality in the opera comes in the African-inflected Christian worship led by the character of Parson Alltalk. The parson’s name suggests that he should not be taken seriously, yet Joplin’s music tells us something else. It is clear from the low and powerful trembling emanating from the orchestra—the timpani and bass like approaching thunder—that the parson is inhabited by the Almighty. While the conjurors keep to the seclusion of their brush arbor, as if the secrecy of slavery times were still essential, the parson leads a worship service fearlessly in the open air.

Joplin, in creating his Treemonisha, was participating in the great project of restoring an oppressed people to full and just humanity, to an ethos of love. His depiction of fear and fearlessness calls to mind the words of John’s Gospel: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear.” Treemonisha knows her own worth and the worth of her community, and looks fearlessly ahead, beloved of her people, the ideal leader striding towards a brighter day.

Ariel Fielding is a producer of culturally diverse performing arts and educational programming, and an applied ethnomusicologist. She holds a M.Mus. in Ethnomusicology from the University of London.

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