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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews a recording of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha.


SCOTT JOPLIN: Treemonisha, in a reconstruction by Rick Benjamin. Rick Benjamin conducting The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra and Singers, with Anita Johnson, soprano (Treemonisha); AnnMarie Sandy, mezzo-soprano (Monisha); Frank Ward, Jr., bass-baritone (Ned); Chauncey Packer, tenor (Remus); and others. New World 80720: 2 CDs, with 100+-page booklet including extensive notes, illustrations and complete libretto bound into the album.

There are at least two other recordings of Treemonisha of which I am aware, and both of which I have heard only sections.  One was never published, but it was broadcast: if memory serves, the orchestration was by T.J. Anderson, Jr. and the conductor was Robert Shaw.  The other was a Houston Grand Opera production from the 1970s (Deutsche Grammophon), which featured a reconstructed orchestration by Gunther Schuller (who also conducted; it is still available in some quarters, and certainly deserves a re-hearing). There were several other attempts at complete performances and orchestral reconstructions even before these.  The present version, recorded with a bare-bones theatrical chamber orchestra and very fine singers in New York’s American Academy of Arts and Letters, is the product of unusual zeal and perseverance on the part of Rick Benjamin.  Benjamin’s zeal led him to meet, in the early 1970s, the attorney who personally destroyed the composer’s own orchestration of Treemonisha in 1962.  His reasons: the score, in three boxes marked Treemonisha, which struck him as “a funny name”, was heavily water-damaged: he did not consider it salvageable.  Besides, he said ruefully, “nobody knew about Scott Joplin in 1962.”  How different things were a mere decade later!

The score of Scott Joplin’s only opera has come down to us in a piano-vocal format, and any performances with an orchestra of any size — however committed to the composer and his style they might be — were extrapolations.  Benjamin provides what amounts to an engrossing dissertation on the short and tragic life of Joplin, and the problems of giving an “authentic” rendition of Treemonisha.  Benjamin’s love affair with the opera goes back to his boyhood, when he found an old copy of the 1911 piano-vocal score and absorbed it—much to the consternation of his piano teacher.   Years later, he became dissatisfied with Schuller’s version, not liking various “tamperings” with the music (including a gratuitous blues chord in the Overture, more Schuller than Joplin) and the discarding of early-20th-century dialect as “offensive”—in short, making Treemonisha into something it wasn’t.  Benjamin had to wait until 1986, when the Joplin score he so cherished entered the public domain; in 1993, he started work on the present version.

Benjamin’s essay is every bit as alluring as the content of the discs: Joplin’s story is intertwined with a number of other African-American musicians of the early twentieth century, most of whom went their own way in creating performing and educational opportunities for themselves.  Joplin himself was taken under the wing of several prominent, European-born musicians at various times in his life, one of whom saw clearly the originality of his piano rags.  The genre of ragtime was on the wane as Joplin’s star rose and fell, since it is—after all—music which requires good piano technique and a strong left hand.  Benjamin goes at length into the life and career of Laura Moss (1875-1935), the original Treemonisha and a lifelong church singer as well as a theatrical performer.

The simple themes of the opera: an adopted young woman, the eponymous character, discovering her roots; the fight against ignorance and superstition in the African-American community; a generous dose of melodrama.  This is all colored by Joplin’s idiosyncratic style.  The orchestra is the standard vaudevillian one developed in the 1870s and in regular use at least through the 1920s, generally referred to as “Eleven and Pno.”—that is, flute (doubling on piccolo), first and second cornets, trombone, drums and a string quintet with double bass—and, of course, piano.  It can support the singers without overwhelming them, but was powerful enough to fill a theater accommodating as many as fifteen hundred people.  Joplin’s piano score, here and there, contains cues for various instruments—the cues for strings are always explicitly for single instruments; oboes, horns, tubas and harps are never indicated.  The sound was wind-centered rather than string-centered: the winds and brass played almost continuously, with the strings providing extra color.  In a word, it is exactly the reverse of the Euro-centric orchestral sound. It is not brassy, but pleasing—and, somehow, a throwback to a lost era. The banjo, says Benjamin, is out because it connoted “old plantation” and minstrelsy stereotypes that black Americans in the early twentieth century were trying to escape.

The vocal soloists are excellent, musical and with better than good diction.  Soprano Anita Johnson, who sings the title role, is particularly noteworthy, as is mezzo AnnMarie Sandy, who plays her adoptive mother Monisha. Bass Frederick Jackson (Luddud) is another standout; but, really, all the singers are standouts.  The chorus is one of probably slightly more than a dozen singers. Dialect is not adopted wholesale, but rather as a coloring like vibrato, half-voice, falsetto or anything else that lends expressivity to singing.  It never sounds affected. The instrumental playing is also first-rate. 

A brief, delightful balletic moment occurs in the second act, with the mostly minor-key Frolic of the Bears, for wordless chorus of about eight men and the “eleven & pno.”  This was published separately as a piano piece during Joplin’s lifetime.  The ensuing scene, in which Treemonisha is rescued from the conjurers by Remus (tenor Chauncey Packer) is almost a mini-Freischütz scene (American-style, of course) in which Remus defeats them by donning a disguise: “I know”, he says, “the conjurors are superstitious, and afraid of anything that looks strange”.  The second act concludes with the chorus “Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn”, which has a wonderful transparency and a new vitality in Benjamin’s orchestration. 

The prelude to the third act is slow and wistful, leading without interruption into a joyous ragtime (as only Joplin could write it) reunion with Treemonisha and her adoptive parents, Monisha and Ned (the excellent baritone Frank Ward, Jr.).  It is here that the orchestra really enters into the role of narrator for the first time.  In the duet between Ned and Monisha, there seems to be a crystallization of Joplin’s own operatic style.  It isn’t a copy of anything European, although he had exposure to that tradition through his European-born teachers.  It is noteworthy, and even praiseworthy, that at least two of these men—a German and an Italian—did not try to make their protégé into something he was not, and recognized his innate gifts and the originality of his own musical language.

For Rick Benjamin, this recording might be described as the culmination of a lifelong passion.  It is a must-have for anyone interested in American music.