Scott Joplin (1868–1917)
From an image in 1903
‘Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn’ (from Treemonisha, 1911)
“Joplin did for the rag what Chopin did for the mazurka. His style ranged from tones of torment to stunning serenades that incorporated the bolero and the tango.”
— Bill Ryerson
[Treemonisha was] “a startlingly early voice for modern civil rights causes, notably the importance of education and knowledge to African American advancement.”
— Elise Kuhl Kirk
Scott Joplin’s operatic works did not make it to the world’s great opera houses until six decades after his death. His first opera, A Guest of Honor, dealt with the 1901 White House dinner at which President Theodore Roosevelt hosted Booker T. Washington — and for which Roosevelt faced strong political attacks. The work had its premiere in East St. Louis, Ill., in 1903, and Joplin took it on the road to a few small Midwest cities. At one stop, most likely Springfield, Ill., the company’s admission receipts were stolen and Joplin could not pay the troupe’s bill at a local boarding house. He was required to leave his trunk and personal effects, likely including the manuscript of A Guest of Honor, as surety. Neither the trunk nor the manuscript has been seen since.
Ragtime was immensely popular at the dawn of the 20th century, and the success of “Maple Leaf Rag,” his second published rag, had made Joplin the acknowledged “King of Ragtime.” But Joplin was working to establish ragtime and African-American music as a serious musical art form. In 1906 he published a set of instructional materials titled The School of Ragtime: Six Exercises for Piano. He remained interested in longer forms of composition, and in 1907 moved from the Midwest to New York City, hoping to find financial support for a project that would bring the African-American experience into the larger world of opera: Treemonisha.
Joplin did not intend Treemonisha to be a “ragtime opera.” He conceived the opera in the European tradition, with overture, recitatives, arias, ballet (“Frolic of the Bears”) and choruses. He wrote the libretto himself and used the ragtime style sparingly. Scholars have suggested that the character of Treemonisha is modeled on Joplin’s second wife, Freddie Alexander, who was educated and well-read, an advocate of women’s rights and African-American culture. Unable to find a publisher in New York, Joplin paid for publication of a piano score in 1911 and sent a copy to American Musician and Art Journal. Despite a glowing full-page review, Treemonisha was never fully produced during Joplin’s life. He organized what amounted to an in-concert reading at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem in 1915, playing the piano himself, and was at work on orchestration, but his orchestral notes and sketches were all lost.
Joplin’s rags remained current for a time after his death in 1917 from siphilitic dementia, remaining in the repertoire of Tommy Dorsey, Jelly Roll Morton and others, but jazz and other emerging musical forms were underway. Aside from “The Maple Leaf Rag” and a few small revivals, ragtime and Joplin faded. Then in 1970 the Treemonisha piano score was found, and the music of Scott Joplin was suddenly everywhere, taken seriously in concert halls, in recordings (Joshua Rifkin on Nonesuch), on the airwaves, and on the big screen (The Sting, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, 1973). Robert Shaw conducted a performance of Treemonisha with the Atlanta Symphony in January 1972, sponsored by the Afro-American Music Workshop of Morehouse College, and Houston Grand Opera staged a full-opera commercial production in 1975, with orchestration by Gunther Schuller. Full productions followed in San Francisco, Venice, Helsinki, Dresden and elsewhere.
Joplin had found an important place in the history of American music. He was awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1976, “... bestowed posthumously in this Bicentennial Year, for his contributions to American music.”
‘Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn’ (from Treemonisha)
Published: 1911; First fully staged operatic performance: May 1975
Synopsis and Text
Treemonisha was Scott Joplin’s second opera and third work for the stage. In three acts, it explores themes of civic and social change, of the jostling between tradition and social progress as African-American society entered the 20th century. Education and knowledge for both men and women were essential elements of the way forward.
Treemonisha was an orphan, found under a tree and adopted by two former slaves, Monisha and Ned. She learned to read at the home of a white woman, and the world opened for her. As a woman of 18 years, Treemonisha emerged as a leader of her community on a former slave plantation in Arkansas. She tries to rally the community in opposition to the “conjure men” — Cephus, Luddud, Zodzetrick, among them — whose power depends upon superstition and ignorance of the people. The conjure men kidnap Treemonisha and are about to throw her onto a wasps’ nest when she is rescued by her friend Remus. The community learns about the advantages that come with education and the vulnerability that ignorance reinforces. The conjure men are forgiven, and the community affirms Treemonisha as its teacher and leader.
“Aunt Dinah Has Blowed de Horn” is the final number in Act II. Treemonisha has been delivered from her captors and reunited with the community. After an exhausting workday, the chorus of cotton pickers happily looks forward to the evening. Aunt Dinah blowing the horn means it’s dinner time — and you’d best not be late. (Aunt Dinah is not a character in the opera, but she rules her kitchen in chapter 14 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was a renowned cook of legendary skill and ability, though somewhat cantankerous and set in her ways.)
Chorus of Cotton Pickers
Aunt Dinah has blowed de horn,
An’ we’ll go home to stay until dawn.
Get ready, put yo’ sack on yo’ back,
I’m so happy, I don’t know how to act.
Aunt Dinah has blowed de horn,
An’ she wants us to come straight home.
We have not much time for delay,
’Cause our work is finished for today.