Friday, May 24, 2013

FRIDAY, MAY 24, 2013

"All the sounds on the earth are like music."

AUTHOR: Oscar Hammerstein Jr.
“Music is all around us; the wind, ocean pulse, and from the birds that sing….if you only
  listen for it.”

 Treemonisha Overture Act I

 Treemonisha (Ragtime Opera)
Frolic of the Bears from Treemonisha 

The end of the 19th century saw the rise of ragtime, a heavily syncopated music form that had its roots in African-American music. It was a time when new music was distributed through printed scores.

Treemonisha (1910/1972) is an opera opera in three acts (named after the heroine) composed by the famed African-American ragtime composer Scott Joplin. Though there are jaunty ragtime songs and dances, 
(the reason why Treemonisha is incorrectly often referred to as a "ragtime opera"), Joplin did not refer to it as such. He intended it as a serious American grand opera, like that of the European opera, with an extensive overture,  an overture.  Following the traditional rules of operatic writing, in the Overture Joplin patches together the main themes of Treemonisha; each of them has a symbolic meaning and/or is associated with a character, an environment or an episode. Those who ignore the opera libretto can therefore miss out on
the hidden meaning of the Overture: it foreshadows the fight between good and evil, between the light of reason and the darkness of superstition, which is at the core of the opera. There is are also instrumental preludes to the second and third acts, along with various recitativeschoruses, small elaborate ensemble pieces, a ballet, and a few formal arias with elements of black folk songs and dances, including a kind of pre-blues music, alongside spirituals, and a call-and-response gospel elements (as in a scene involving a congregation and preacher). Its polarity of thought, assimilated black identity and the influence of classic European opera of the Eighteenth century are distinctive.

With a libretto by Joplin, Treemonisha, is a story of the triumph of education and enlightenment over superstition and ignorance among the African American population of the Texarkana region of Arkansas in the late 1800s. The story is set in September 1884 on a remote former slave plantation in Arkansas surrounded by an isolated dense forest between Joplin's childhood town Texarkana and the Red River in Arkansas. The opera takes place in the south only one year after the end of the Civil War (1861-1865) that resulted in the abolition of slavery.  It tells of Treemonisha, an 18-year-old woman, the adopted child of ex-slaves, Monisha (mezzo-soprano) and Ned (bass) who find a baby under a tree. They adopt her and decide to name her Treemonisha. The child is sent away for an education and taught to read by a white woman (in exchange for Monisha washing and ironing clothes). When she later comes home she returns to a community riddled with superstition and witchcraft.

A band of conjurers tries to sell a “bag of luck” to her gullible mother, Treemonisha intervenes and banishes them. There are complications when the conjurers, who are losing their hold on the uneducated laborers of the plantation, capture Treemonisha and threaten to throw her into a wasp's nest. At the last minute, with the help of her friend Remus (tenor), Treemonisha is rescued and brought home. The opera ends with Treemonisha calling for the forgiveness of her captors. All the villains of superstition are forgiven.  Her proud parents, Ned and Monisha, and the laborers on the plantation celebrate Treemonisha as their leader in a wistfully tender final ensemble and dance, “A Real Slow Drag.” The community realizes the value of education and the liability of their ignorance before choosing her as their teacher and leader.  The story is an early voice for modern civil rights causes and most notably her character stresses the importance of literacy, learning, hard work, and community solidarity as the best formula for the advancement of the African-American population.

Treemonisha was completed in 1910, twenty-five years before the landmark black opera "Porgy and Bess" by George Gershwin. Joplin completed the opera in the vocal-piano presentation (with notes about the orchestration, along with Joplin's first opera A Guest of Honor 1903, were lost) and paid for the score to be published in 1911.  At the time of the publication, he sent a copy of the score to the American Musician and Art Journal and received a glowing, full-page review in their June issue. The review called it an "entirely new phase of musical art and... a thoroughly American opera (style)," which fit in well with Joplin's desire to create a distinctive form of African-American opera. Despite this endorsement and was said to contain some of his best music there was only one theater who agreed to produce it, after viewing a concert performance read-through with Joplin at the piano in 1915 at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, New York, but the backers reneged.  Joplin became obsessed with Treemonisha at the end of his life, desperately trying to convince publishers to print it.  His dream of staging Treemonisha eluded him, and he died having only seen a run-through
with the piano accompaniment. The opera was not performed in full until 1972.

Aside from a concert-style performance in 1915 of the ballet from Act II, Frolic of the Bears by the Martin-Smith Music School, the opera was forgotten until 1970 when the piano score was rediscovered.  Also in the 1970's there was renewed interest in ragtime after the hit movie "The Sting" opened the world's ears to Scott Joplin's music leading to Treemonisha being staged in its entirety for the first time in 1972 using the orchestration by
T.J. Anderson. Subsequent performances have been produced using several versions of orchestrations created by a variety of composers including Gunther Schuller and most recently,  Rick Benjamin.

Gunther Schuller orchestrated and conducted a production with extreme care taken toward giving it an authentic sound based on the instruments and trends of its own day. But that version did not sound right to Rick Benjamin, an expert in late 19th and early 20th century music who found it "too heavy." Benjamin spent much of the last five years reconstructing the "Treemonisha" score for a 12-piece theater pit orchestra of the kind Joplin and his peers wrote for and performed with.

Treemonisha may have mirrored details from Joplin's own life.  In the opera, the title character receives her education in a white woman's home.  Joplin taught himself music fundamentals on a piano in the white home where his mother,  a domestic, (similar to the character of Monisha, who agrees to wash and iron clothes for a white family, if the lady of the house would give Treemonisha an education) worked.   News of the little child Scott's amazing gifts filtered through to the white Texarkana, Texas community. A teacher (German-born music teacher Julius Weiss) volunteered to teach him piano and harmony. So important was this glimpse into education that Scott Joplin would forever believe that the black person's path to salvation lay in education.  Lottie Joplin (the composer's third wife) saw a connection between the character Treemonisha's wish to lead her people out of ignorance and a similar desire in the composer.  The opera Treemonisha is based on this belief, and it conveys this social message in a manner ahead of its time, using an 18-year-old woman as its heroine.

It took 64 years before the work was given its first full professional staging. In 1976, Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for "contributions to American music."

.......b.  CONTINUED